What are ganglion cysts?

Ganglion cysts are a common hand and wrist condition where lumps form adjacent to joints or tendons.

Ganglion cysts typically form on the top of the wrist, the palm side of the wrist, the base of the finger (palm side) or on the top of the end joint of the finger. The cysts are full of clear fluid and resemble a small water balloon.

The ganglion cyst can change in size or disappear without treatment.

Causes of ganglion cysts

Although the cause of ganglion cysts has not been determined, they commonly form in the presence of tendon irritation or mechanical changes. 

Risk factors for ganglion cysts

Risk factors of ganglion cysts include:

  • Gender — women are at a higher risk to develop ganglion cysts.
  • Age — ganglion cysts typically affect people between the ages of 20 and 40.
  • Joint or tendon injury — people who have joints or tendons that have been injured previously are at a higher risk to develop ganglion cysts.
  • Osteoarthritis in the hands or fingers — people who suffer from osteoarthritis near the finger joints are more likely to develop ganglion cysts.

Symptoms of ganglion cysts

The most common symptom or sign of ganglion cysts is an oval or round lump on the wrist or hand.

Other symptoms of ganglion cysts include:

  • Cyst is firm but tender when applied with direct pressure
  • Light can pass through the lumps
  • Cyst can also be soft to the touch

Diagnosis of ganglion cysts

Ganglion cysts are diagnosed in a physical exam with your orthopedic physician. In the exam, the physician will test for discomfort on the cyst and try to determine if the cyst is filled with fluid or a solid substance.

If the initial exam is inconclusive, the physician may order an x-ray, ultrasound or MRI. These imaging tests will help determine if the patient has a ganglion cyst or another hand or wrist condition.  

To confirm the diagnosis, a physician can cut into the cyst and exam the fluid in the cyst. Typically, ganglion cysts are filled with clear, thick fluid.

Treatments for ganglion cysts

Many ganglion cysts do not require treatment. Your physician will recommend further treatments if the ganglion cyst is causing pain or limits mobility in the joints.

Most treatment options for ganglion cysts are non-surgical. First-line therapy is anti-inflammatory medication paired with a splint or a brace. These therapies will reduce the pain by limiting the activity in the joints.

More advanced treatment options include:

  • Fluid aspiration — involves cutting into the cyst with a needle to remove the fluid and decompress the cyst.
  • Surgical removal — removes the cyst and part of the joint capsule, can be performed both traditionally or arthroscopic.

Recovery from ganglion cysts

Because the cause of the cyst is unknown, ganglion cysts can reoccur even after surgery.

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