Can Birth Control Lower the Risk of Ovarian Cysts?
Ovarian cysts are a common occurrence in premenopausal women and are usually benign. In most cases, a cyst will resolve on its own and will not require any further treatment. However, up to 8% of women will form an ovarian cyst that is pathologic in nature that will require surgical intervention. For women who are prone to ovarian cysts, some hormonal birth control products can lower the chances of a cyst forming.
What is an ovarian cyst?
During the menstrual cycle, the ovaries will release one egg per month, in a process called ovulation. Before the ovary can release an egg, a fluid-filled sac, or follicle, will develop around the immature egg. Many follicles will form at once, and if an egg does not mature and release from the follicle, these follicles will disintegrate. An egg that reaches maturity will be released from the follicle (ovulation) and then travel down the fallopian tubes. After ovulation, the follicle that released the egg will turn into a corpus luteum, or collapsed follicle. Sometimes, a follicle that grows bigger than expected will form into a functional cyst. A cyst is a bubble of fluid with a thin wall surrounding it.
The ovary is about the size of an almond. A cyst can grow to about a half inch to an inch in size, and double the size of the ovary. In most cases, the body will reabsorb the fluid from the cyst within a few weeks or months. But in some cases, a cyst can cause other problems.
An ovarian cyst can be seen on an ultrasound, and most of the time they will disappear on their own. In some cases though, a cyst can keep growing and cause what’s called ovarian torsion, where the ovary becomes twisted because the cyst has become so large. Signs of a problematic cyst include:
Sometimes, a cyst can rupture and cause internal bleeding. If a woman experiences these symptoms, it’s crucial that she gets swift medical attention. An untreated, problematic cyst that ruptures or causes torsion can lead to loss of the ovary.
What are the different types of ovarian cysts?
Follicular cysts and corpus luteum cysts are the most common types of ovarian cysts. They are benign, or noncancerous, and most often resolve on their own. If a follicular or corpus luteum cyst is particularly large, a doctor might opt for monitoring the cyst via ultrasound for up to six months to make sure that the cyst does not cause any complications.
There are a few other types of ovarian cysts that are less common:
Dermoids are cysts that form from cells present in the ovary from birth.
Cystadenomas are filled with a watery, viscous fluid that can sometimes grow large enough to cause pain and complications.
Endometriomas are cysts caused by endometriosis when the lining of the uterus grows outside of the womb.
How are cysts treated?
If a cyst does not resolve on its own, it can be removed via laparoscopy or laparotomy.
Is the presence of ovarian cysts always an indicator of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)?
No, an ovarian cyst does not mean that a woman has PCOS. Women who have PCOS will have many small cysts form on the ovary at once, and they will also experience a host of other symptoms, including irregular periods and problems regulating insulin.
Are ovarian cysts cancerous?
Cancerous ovarian cysts are incredibly rare, but they do happen. Most of the time, cancerous cysts form in older, postmenopausal women. But since there is a slight risk of cancer, ovarian cysts should be checked by a doctor. Ovarian cancer is difficult to detect in the early stages and is one of the most deadly cancers to women.
Who is most at risk of getting an ovarian cyst?
Women who have regular periods are most at-risk for getting an ovarian cyst. The majority of women who menstruate every month will form at least one follicle or corpus luteum each month during ovulation. Most cysts don’t cause any symptoms, so the majority of women do not know they have a cyst. Problems only start if a cyst grows big enough to cause pain, or if multiple small cysts form in the case of PCOS. About 8% of women who ovulate regularly will have a cyst that causes other complications. For postmenopausal women, an ovarian cyst is a risk factor for cancer. If an ovarian cyst occurs with the following symptoms, it could be a sign of ovarian cancer:
How can taking birth control help to prevent ovarian cysts from forming?
Birth control, such as the birth control pill, injection, patch, or ring, prevents ovulation. It is the process of ovulation that causes a cyst to form. For women who are concerned about problematic ovarian cysts, birth control pills can prevent them from forming. Birth control pills, however, will not dissolve existing cysts. Combination birth control pills are the most effective at blocking ovulation. Progestin-only pills or mini-pills have an unpredictable effect on ovulation and are not good at preventing cysts from forming.
Birth control has other benefits. Using birth control pills for at least five years will lower a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer by up to 40%. Even if a woman has a family history of ovarian cancer, birth control pills can still lower her risk of cancer. All hormonal methods of birth control lower the risk of endometrial cancer as well. Not only is taking the birth control pill effective at stopping unintended pregnancy, but it is also beneficial for women’s reproductive health.
If you’re concerned about ovarian cysts, it’s a good idea to look into hormonal birth control methods to prevent them from forming. Most insurances will cover hormonal birth control options for the prevention of cysts.