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Understanding Ganglion Cysts: What You Need to Know

Ganglion cysts may sound unusual or even scary, but they are not usually something to worry about. They are small round, fluid filled lumps that appear on the wrists, hands or ankles. They’re common and they can be uncomfortable or even painful. 

But they often go away on their own – and if they don’t, they can be treated. They’re not cancerous.

Tolga Turker, MD, an orthopedic surgeon with Banner – University Medicine, explained more about what causes ganglion cysts, who’s at risk and what you can do to get rid of them.

What causes ganglion cysts?

A lot of times, a ganglion cyst can develop near a joint or a tendon. The area where a cyst appears may get irritated or hurt, and that’s what causes the cyst. “Anyone can get them,” said Dr. Turker. 

A few factors can put you at higher risk:

  • They are most common in young adults and women.
  • Athletes and people with jobs that require repetitive motion often get them. That’s because stressing your joints increases your risk.
  • Injuring your joints or having osteoarthritis can make them more likely.

Signs and symptoms of ganglion cysts

A ganglion cyst looks like a lump under your skin. It could be as small as a pea or as big as a grape. You might notice:

  • The area near the cyst feels uncomfortable and achy. That could be because the cyst presses on a joint or nerve.
  • Swelling near the cyst that comes and goes. 
  • Shiny, stretched skin above the cyst.
  • The joint near the cyst doesn’t move as far as usual (less range of motion) or feels weak.
  • The cyst gets bigger or more painful when you use the joint or tendon near it.

“Joint fluid may travel between the joint and the cyst. That can cause fluctuations in its size and your pain,” said Dr. Turker.

Diagnosing ganglion cysts

If you notice a lump, it’s important to see a health care provider. That way, you can find out if you have a ganglion cyst or some other type of growth. They can recommend a treatment plan and help you avoid any complications.

“Cysts usually form because of some problem around the joints. Uncovering and treating that problem can keep cysts from coming back,” said Dr. Turker.

Your doctor may recommend the following steps to diagnose a ganglion cyst:

  • Physical exam to look at the lump’s size and shape and see how much discomfort it causes.
  • Medical history to find out if you have any injuries or activities that could have caused a cyst.
  • Imaging studies like ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), in some cases, to get a closer look at the area.
  • Transillumination or shining a light through the cyst.
  • Aspiration, which involves taking some fluid out of the cyst with a needle. Analyzing the fluid can confirm the diagnosis and rule out other conditions. 

Treating ganglion cysts

There are a few different treatment options. Your provider can recommend the best approach. They will consider the benefits and risks of each option, based on your situation:

  • Observation: Your provider may watch a small, painless cyst over time. Some ganglion cysts go away on their own, especially if they’ve been there for six months or less. 
  • Aspiration: Draining the cyst by taking out fluid with a thin needle can help. But a lot of time, ganglion cysts come back.
  • Surgery: Sometimes, if it is painful or bothersome, removing the cyst with surgery is an option. You can usually go home on the same day of surgery and recovery time depends on where the cyst is located. But if it’s arthritis or repetitive stress causing the cyst, it could come back.

Be sure to talk to your health care provider about any changes in the cyst’s size or your symptoms. Tell your doctor if the cyst comes back after treatment.

You shouldn’t try to treat a ganglion cyst on your own. You might have complications or a cyst that comes back. A health care provider can guide you through the treatment process.

How to manage symptoms

These steps can help reduce the discomfort you might feel when you have a ganglion cyst:

  • Warm, moist compresses, which can reduce pain and swelling.
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory medications or pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol). 
  • Activity modification, since it can help to avoid movements that make your symptoms worse.
  • Protective gear or padding, which can keep you from bumping the cyst by mistake.
  • Adaptive devices like braces or splints can stabilize your joints.
  • Hand exercises that can improve your mobility and strength.

How to prevent ganglion cysts

You can’t eliminate your risk of ganglion cysts. But you can take steps to make them less likely:

  • Protect your joints: If you’re using your joints repeatedly, keep them safer with braces, splints or ergonomic support. Protection is especially important for your wrists if you work on a computer or make the same motions with your hands regularly.
  • Avoid injuries: Wear safety gear when you’re playing sports. When you’re lifting heavy objects, use proper techniques to keep your wrists and hands safe.
  • Keep your joints healthy: Eating a balanced diet, drinking plenty of water and staying physically active can help. 
  • Get treatment quickly: If you notice any lumps, contact a health care provider. That way, you can keep the cyst from getting bigger and make complications less likely.

The bottom line

Ganglion cysts are small bumps that can develop on your hands, wrists or ankles. They can be uncomfortable or even painful, but they are usually not cancerous. 

If you have a bump, you should have it evaluated by a health care provider. That way, you can work together to come up with a treatment plan.

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