What You Should Know About Cysts



IT WOULD BE MORE FUN if cysts had better names, like boils have furuncle and carbuncle. There is “Bible bump,” which refers to a common, ganglion cyst usually located on the wrist or ankle — the name comes from a traditional treatment: a good smash from the family Bible.

A cyst is a sac-like structure that moves freely under the skin’s surface when pressed. Cysts usually contain a semisolid, liquid or gaseous substance; and can range in size from microscopic to large enough to displace an organ. Ganglion cysts occur more commonly in women than men, and more commonly between the ages of 20 and 50. Most disappear spontaneously, although a splint to restrict the joint’s movement can help speed the cyst’s shrinkage. Those that linger, especially large cysts that compress nerves and cause pain, are removed surgically.

Boils, by contrast, are caused by bacteria that enter the skin through improperly cleaned cuts or scrapes. Boils usually need to be lanced or drained. A furnuncle refers to a boil occurring within a hair follicle, and a carbuncle refers to a larger abscess involving a group of hair follicles. Having recurrent boils is called furunculosis or carbunculosis.

My orthopedist called a hard, painful lump behind my knee a “Baker’s cyst” — making me wonder if it came from an impressive amount of time spent cooking, though doubtful. The capital letter should have given it away: the cyst is named after the surgeon who discovered it. The label distinguishes a Baker’s cyst from hundreds of different kinds of such lumps. As many cysts do, this one went away on its own – but Baker’s cysts can burst, creating a sharp pain, swelling and redness, and a feeling of fluid running down the calf.

My other personal cyst experience involved a common epidermal cyst – often incorrectly called a “sebaceous” cyst. Most of the time it looked like a half-inch wide red bump on my thigh, but when I was overtired or sick, it became larger, redder and slightly painful. As I was making plans for a month-long trip in southern Africa, and worrying over many disease possibilities, I asked my dermatologist about removing it. She agreed, made a little incision, and out came a completely intact, tiny white sac, looking like a bouquet garni – albeit a distasteful comparison.

Most cysts are asymptomatic and require no treatment. They can occur when synovial fluid leaks from a joint capsule or tendon, often as a result of a local injury or arthritis. Other causes include infections, chronic inflammatory conditions or blockages of ducts in the body. Cysts that are large and/or painful, particularly those that form on the ovaries, are usually removed and biopsied, because in rare cases they can be malignant.

One of the most painful kinds of cyst is the “pilonidal cyst,” also known as a tailbone cyst, which occurs on the tailbone, or coccyx, and is most common among males ages 15 to 24. It is thought to be caused by constant friction — either from activities such as cycling and horseback riding or from wearing very tight pants.

Among natural cyst treatments, the one most often mentioned is turmeric: mixed with a teaspoon of honey – or in curry. Also, follow a healthy diet and exercise to keep the blood flowing, and practice “personal hygiene.”

–Mary Carpenter

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