What is a ganglion cyst?

Ganglion cysts are small sacs that are benign and filled with blood. They usually form on or close to a joint, or a tendon cover.

Typically these cysts form on the wrist but they can appear on the elbow, ankle, foot, or knee. Under the the skin they appear like tiny lumps.

Ganglion cysts aren’t cancerous and typically are harmless. If they cause discomfort, difficulty moving the joint or if the person feels unsightly, a doctor can remove them.

Ganglion cysts often affect people aged 15–40, and occur more often in women than in men. They are very popular, but doctors are not very aware of them. One study’s authors describe these as “enigmatic.”

What is a ganglion cyst?

Ganglion cysts
Ganglion cysts are benign lumps that often go away on their own.
Image credit: Kulzerwi, 2006

Ganglion cysts also turn up on the wrist’s neck. They are lumps that contain fluid in circular or oval shape.

This form of cyst can vary from pea size to golf ball size. The cyst on a stalk below the skin resembles a water balloon.

Ganglion cysts aren’t a major medical threat. But, if one presses on a nerve it may cause pain.

Those cysts may also make certain movements difficult depending on their size and position.

Symptoms

A ganglion cyst often forms around a joint, and by visually inspecting it, a doctor may usually identify one.

We can be flexible or heavy, and under the skin we should be able to move freely.

Location: Typically such cysts occur on the top or back of the hand. Or, they can appear on the wrist’s palm hand, on the finger base palm, or on the end joint of a finger. They can also develop on a foot, an ankle or a knee.

Pain: Ganglion cysts may or may not be painful, depending on whether a nerve is being pushed on.

Size: This can range from a pea to a golf ball.

The area surrounding the cyst can feel numb. If a cyst develops on the hand or on the wrist, the individual may lose control.

Causes

Doctors do not know what is causing cysts in the ganglion. They can form when a joint leaks to synovial fluid.

A ganglion cyst tends to attach to an underlying joint capsule or tendon sheath. They normally grow where a joint or tendon boosts out of place, naturally.

Risk factors

A young lady discussing her health condition with doctor
Ganglion cysts are most common in females aged between 15 and 40 years.

Risk factors tend to include:

Age and sex: ganglion cysts can affect anyone at any time, but they occur more commonly in females aged 15–40.

Overuse: People who use those joints regularly may have a greater risk of developing ganglion cysts. For example, female gymnasts may be particularly vulnerable to developing these cysts.

Joint or tendon injury: In an region that has suffered damage, at least 10 percent of ganglion cysts occur.

Trauma: They may form following a single incident or reoccurring small injuries.

Formation

Experts do not know exactly how ganglion cysts form.

However, it appears that:

  • Joint stress may play a role, as the cysts often develop in sites of overuse or trauma.
  • They may develop following a leak of synovial fluid from a joint into the surrounding area.

How or why this happens is not entirely clear.

Diagnosis

A doctor usually shines a light into the cyst to see if the contents are either transparent or opaque. The liquid should be clear and thick inside a cyst of the ganglion.

Imaging scans, such as an X-ray, ultrasound or MRI, will help a doctor determine the nodule’s cause and rule out any issues.

Treatment

A ganglion cyst does not generally require care, as long as it does not cause any irritation or pain. Without intervention, up to half can vanish, but some take many years to resolve altogether.

If the cyst is pressing on a nerve and causing pain, a doctor may prescribe some sort of treatment.

Home remedies and tips

The following will help if a cyst causes discomfort:

Adapting footwear: If the cyst is on a foot or ankle, shoes do not rub or irritate it. Wearing soft or open shoes, adding padding, or lacing the shoes in a different way can help.

Immobilization: Moving the affected area can increase the size of the cyst. Wearing a splint or brace will help restrict movement, and this can lead to a diminishing cyst.

Pain relief: Over-the-counter pain medicine, such as ibuprofen, can help if the cyst is painful.

Should I hit it with a blunt object?

A traditional remedy involves hitting a ganglion cyst with a heavy object, like a book.

There’s little evidence, however, that this approach is safe or successful. Doctors don’t encourage people to do so, since the blow could damage underlying body structures.

Dr. Owen Kramer explained to Nccmed:

“It would be a really bad idea to touch some sort of protrusion or nodule, like a cyst of the ganglion, in the hopes it will make clear. This may result in serious injury. “Individuals should therefore not attempt to” pop “their cysts, because this can lead to infection, and the problem is unlikely to be resolved.

If a person has serious pain they should talk about treatment with their doctor.

Removal

Ganglion cysts vanish without care in up to 50 percent of cases. However, if the cyst is large, painful or causes problems, a doctor may recommend removing it with one of the following techniques:

Aspiration: This involves removing the cyst fluid. However, the cyst can form again, since the underlying structure remains. Some people have to go through the process several times.

Surgery: A surgeon can make a small incision and remove the stalk and the cyst. Keyhole surgery, or arthroscopy, is an option, too.

A small study published in 2006 showed that after this surgery, about 30 per cent of cysts returned.

Researchers writing in 2014, however, noted that arthroscopic surgery could be the way forward in solving ganglion cysts. Open surgery can leave a “unsightly scar,” they noted.

Recovery

Pain relief drugs
Over-the-counter pain relief may help with recovery after surgery.

The person should keep the area covered after surgery, and protect it from accidental bumping.

Other tips include:

  • following the doctor’s aftercare recommendations
  • wearing a splint for a few days, if the cyst was on the hand or wrist
  • using over-the-counter pain relief, if necessary
  • keeping the extremity raised to reduce the risk of swelling

If discomfort persists, see the doctor.

Outlook

A ganglion cyst does not pose a significant health concern. However, if it causes any pain or movement restriction, talk to a doctor, who may prescribe a procedure to remove it.

Surgical procedures may leave a scar, and the cyst is at risk of developing again.

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