Causes & Treatment

Ovarian cysts are more common than you’d think – so why aren’t we talking about the symptoms?

Emma Harpham, Editor  |   1 Jan 2024

Ovarian cyst symptoms and diagnosis – Team TRB’s Junior Editor shares her experience

My ovarian cyst ruptured five years ago. I was blissfully unaware that I even had one until I began to feel a searing, heavy cramp in my abdomen one evening after a week of particularly long office hours and dashing from one after-work meetup to another. 

“We think this is appendicitis, so you’ll probably need surgery” I was told at first, doubled over on a trolly in a chilly emergency room corridor, gritting my teeth. 

But after blood tests showed no signs of infection and undergoing way too much poking and prodding plus an internal ultrasound, they found a corpus luteum cyst the size of a large lime on my right ovary. It had burst.

ovarian cyst stories emma

A few years later, I was diagnosed with another slightly smaller cyst, which ended up rupturing in a similar fashion. 

And honestly, it wasn’t something I’d had much clue about until it happened to me – much like many other woefully under-discussed aspects of women’s wellbeing. Thanks, education system!

Why sharing our ovarian cyst stories can be so helpful for others

It turns out, as with many ovarian cyst stories, that both of mine eventually resolved themselves without treatment or surgical intervention.

They’re not just ‘common’, though. It is estimated that virtually all people with ovaries who have a monthly period will have had one, at some point! Who knew?

Vicky Pattinson and Hailey Bieber are just two of the handful of celebs who have recently shared their ovarian cyst stories, speaking out about their experiences and helping to raise awareness. 

Getting medical advice rather than doom-scrolling and self-diagnosing (I’m so guilty of this, too!) is key. But checking your symptoms off before making an appointment can help you feel better placed to advocate for yourself – and avoid misdiagnosis.

So, how do you know if you have an ovarian cyst? Let’s get clued up on some of the ovarian cyst symptoms and signs.

what is an ovarian cyst

What is an ovarian cyst?

In short, an ovarian cyst is a fluid-filled sac that develops on your ovary. 

The NHS tells us that there are two main types of ovarian cysts;

  • Functional ovarian cysts – these are the most common type, and they develop as part of your menstrual cycle. They’re usually harmless, and short-lived. You might hear these referred to as follicular cysts, or corpus luteum cysts, depending on where and when they’ve developed in your cycle.
  • Pathological ovarian cysts – these are cysts that form as a result of abnormal cell growth. Categorized into dermoid cysts and cystadenomas, they’re much less common.

Ovarian cysts can also be caused by underlying conditions like endometriosis, where tissue that is similar to your womb lining ends up growing in other places, like your ovaries or fallopian tubes. Known as ovarian endometriomas, or chocolate cysts, these cysts are filled with endometrial fluid. 

If you have PCOS, you’re also likely to experience lots of small, painless cysts on your ovaries, although it is possible to have PCOS without having this symptom, too.

Ovarian cyst symptoms – how do you know if you have an ovarian cyst? 

So, how do you know if you have an ovarian cyst? Ovarian cyst symptoms can be pretty wide-ranging, and according to the NHS, can include; 

  • Pelvic pain – this can range from a dull, heavy sensation to a sudden, severe and sharp pain
  • Pain during sex
  • Heavy periods – as well as irregular periods
  • Difficulty emptying your bowels
  • Needing to wee more often
  • Bloating – a swollen tummy
  • Feeling very full after only eating a little

My ovarian cyst symptoms also included painful periods and moodiness. When I had my second cyst, these symptoms went on for a few months – and were brushed off as IBS, ovulation pain and other stomach issues.

On the other hand, you might not experience any symptoms at all. But, it’s not strictly true that ovarian cysts only cause symptoms if they rupture or burst. You can have the above symptoms at any point. 

So if you do relate to any of these, it’s worth making an appointment with your doctor.

What are the signs of a ruptured ovarian cyst?

The larger the cyst you have, the more likely it is to rupture. 

Symptoms of a ruptured ovarian cyst include;

  • Sudden abdominal or pelvic pain
  • Spotting or blood in your underwear
  • Excessive abdominal bloating 

Most ruptured ovarian cysts aren’t harmful, even though they can be painful.

However, you should ask for an urgent GP appointment, or call 111, if you’re experiencing either of the following;

  • Sudden severe abdominal pain with fever or vomiting
  • Cold, clammy skin, rapid breathing, and lightheadedness or weakness

You’ll be assessed for ovarian torsion, as well as for signs of haemorrhage and infection. 

Ovarian cysts and your fertility 

Another less common symptom often left off the list of ovarian cyst symptoms is difficulty getting pregnant.

Ovarian cysts don’t usually impact your fertility, although they can sometimes mean that it may take longer for you to conceive.

For example, large cysts can disrupt normal ovarian function or cause structural issues, affecting the release of eggs as well as your hormone levels.

If you’re currently trying to conceive (TTC) and experiencing persistent symptoms, it’s worth having a chat with your doctor or fertility team.

ovarian cyst symptoms

Worried about your ovarian cyst symptoms? Here’s how to prep for an appointment

Consider bringing along a family member or friend to your appointment – having an extra set of ears can be super helpful in remembering what your doctor says!

Prep for your visit by jotting down a few key things: 

  • Your main symptoms
  • When they started, and how long you’ve had them
  • The date of your last period, and how many days your bleed usually lasts
  • A list of what you’re currently taking – from prescription meds to vitamins and food supplements
  • When you had your last smear test, if you’re over 25

When you’re face-to-face with your doctor, it can be helpful to ask about the likely cause of your symptoms, if there are any tests you’ll need, and whether they’ve got any recommendations for managing your pain or bloating. 

And, feel free to toss in any other questions that pop into your head during the appointment – it’s your time, and you shouldn’t feel like you’re being dismissed if you feel something isn’t quite right.

I found asking for printed materials or website recommendations for more info was really great for helping me avoid doctor Google!

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