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Hailey Bieber recently opened up about her struggle with ovarian cysts. But what are they, what are their symptoms and what’s the best way to deal with them? Anna Bartter investigates.

It’s rare that something as distinctly unglamorous as a cyst becomes headline news, but after Hailey Bieber revealed via Instagram last week that she suffers from ovarian cysts, they’re having a bit of a moment.

If you’ve ever had one, you’re not alone – they’re very common, and for the most part, fairly harmless. Here’s everything you need to know about our little uterine friends. 

What is an ovarian cyst?

Women typically have two ovaries, on either side of the womb and at the end of each fallopian tube. A fluid-filled sac, known as an ovarian cyst, can form on either ovary; usually, they’ll be totally harmless – you might even be unaware you have one.

“During the menstrual cycle, cysts can be produced due to cyclical hormonal changes,” explains consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist Ashfaq Khan. “Their causes are largely unknown, but there are occasional genetic risk factors, as well as increased risks due to weight and age.”

According to the NHS, ovarian cysts only tend to cause symptoms when they’re very large, or if they’re blocking the blood supply to the ovaries. In some cases, the cyst can rupture, and it’s then that your symptoms may become more severe and require medical attention. 

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There are twodifferent types of cysts

There are two types of ovarian cyst: pathological and functional. The NHS advises that “pathological cysts are caused by abnormal cell growth and are not related to the menstrual cycle”. They’re usually non-cancerous, but in rare cases, a cyst may be malignant, requiring surgical removal.

Functional cysts are the more common type, and they are linked to menstruation. Each month during ovulation, an egg is released from the ovaries. Occasionally, the ovary won’t release an egg or it may not fully discharge any fluid after ovulation, meaning it may swell and form a cyst.

Sometimes, ovarian cysts can be caused by underlying issues such as endometriosis, when the lining of the womb grows outside of the uterus. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is caused by hormone levels and, despite the name, is a separate medical condition, as Khan explains: “PCOS is not a cyst. It is a polycystic syndrome, which is due to irregularities in hormone production in the body.These cysts are mostly 10-15mm in size and tend to present as 10-12 in number at any time. These cysts recycle, which means that they resolve spontaneously then regrow.”

What are the symptoms of an ovarian cyst?

Even though medical experts say the majority of ovarian cysts are symptomless, many women report a variety of side-effects. Most commonly, ovarian cysts can cause abdominal pain and bloating.

“Benign cysts usually present as dull ache either side of the lower abdomen,” says Khan. “Sometimes, women may have irregular periods or irregular vaginal bleeding. If cysts get bigger, they can cause the sensation of swelling or fullness in the lower abdomen.” 

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Elle Baldry, 35, ended up in A&E in severe pain with an ovarian cyst. She tells Stylist: “For a while, my only symptoms were nausea and sickness, which I worked out fitted in with when I was ovulating. But then I started to get a lot of lower abdominal pain, and it got so bad I was struggling to stand up straight because of it. It felt as though I had an elastic band inside me that was about to pop.”

After an initial misdiagnosis of cystitis, Baldry underwent surgery to have the cyst removed, and when she regained consciousness, she was told the cyst had hair and teeth. Known as dermoid cysts, these types of cysts are not as scary as they sound, and again are relatively harmless.

“Dermoid cysts are a type of congenital cyst which grows bigger in the later part of life and presents as a larger cyst,” explains Khan. “They are mostly benign. Benign cysts tend to be singular or clumped together in groups of two or three and they can be quite large – 3cm to 10cm or even bigger.”

If you do suffer symptoms, they can be unpleasant and uncomfortable, ranging from cramping and irritability to pain during sex and inability to urinate. So, while the medical advice is that they’re harmless, if you’re struggling with symptoms, it’s always worth consulting your GP. 

How are ovarian cysts treated?

If they’re not causing any symptoms, a study by Imperial College London recommends “watchful waiting” as an alternative to surgery, to reduce the risk of surgical complications. The NHS reports that the majority of ovarian cysts will disappear on their own within a few months. However, if you’ve been through menopause, there’s an increased risk that the cyst may be cancerous, so surgery might be recommended. 

Do ovarian cysts affect fertility?

The good news is that generally, ovarian cysts shouldn’t affect fertility. If you’re having the cyst surgically removed and you’re pre-menopausal, your doctor will try to leave the ovaries intact, so fertility will be unaffected. In some cases, an ovary may need to be removed, but this only carries a slightly lower chance of conceiving. In fact, many women only discover they have ovarian cysts during routine pregnancy scans.

No doubt Bieber will have raised awareness of the signs and symptoms of ovarian cysts through her story, and even though the likelihood of complications is low, a greater awareness of our physical health, signs and symptoms is always a good thing. If you’re in any doubt, get checked out by your GP.

Images: Getty 

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