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Overview

A ganglion cyst is a lump, typically round or oval, that can develop on the hand or wrist. It may be as small as a pea or it can grow up to about an inch in diameter. Generally speaking, ganglion cysts are nothing to worry about. Fairly common, they are usually harmless, aren’t cancerous, don’t spread, and often disappear on their own. The main problem with them is that people who have them may feel they are unsightly and, if they grow too large, they can hurt and limit function.

Ganglion cysts are most common in people between the ages of 15 and 40, although they can develop at any age.

“It’s not clear what causes ganglion cysts to form, but there is some evidence that they may be related to prior trauma or arthritis,” says J. Grant Thomson, MD, director of Yale Medicine's Hand & Microsurgery Program

What is a ganglion cyst?

A ganglion cyst is sac of sticky, colorless jelly-like fluid that can feel firm or spongy to the touch. These cysts tend to arise from tissue that surrounds joints. They are most often found on the back of the wrist, but might also occur in other areas, such as the base of a finger on the inside of the palm. There may be one large cyst or multiple small cysts.

Sometimes, ganglion cysts develop at the site of an injury or near an area where someone has developed arthritis. They sometimes are found in people who do sports or other activities that require them to put pressure on their wrists.

Although less common, ganglion cysts also may develop on the ankles and feet.

What are the symptoms of a ganglion cyst?

Most ganglion cysts don’t cause symptoms or interfere with function in any way. Some people may not even realize they have a ganglion cyst—some are so small they are difficult to detect. But if a ganglion cyst presses on nerves, it can can cause tingling and muscle weakness.

How are ganglion cysts diagnosed?

In assessing your ganglion cyst, the doctor will take note of the lump’s location, how it feels to the touch, and what it looks like. Ganglion cysts are translucent, so part of the diagnosis may be shining a light on the cyst to see if the light shines through it.

If you have a ganglion cyst, your doctor may ask you to have an X-ray to determine whether there are other problems in nearby joints. Sometimes, an MRI can show a ganglion cyst that is not visible on an X-ray.

How are ganglion cysts treated?

Some ganglion cysts go away on their own, while others remain small and cause no problems.  Small cysts may just be monitored, requiring no treatment at all. If a larger cyst is causing discomfort, your doctor may recommend anti-inflammatory pain medications and/or wearing a splint. Immobilizing the affected area can relieve stress, provide pain relief, and sometimes even lead to a decrease in the size of the cyst.  

Some physicians may decide to puncture the cyst with a needle and remove the fluid. While this may provide relief, the results are usually only temporary, and there is a good chance that fluid will fill the cyst again.

If none of these approaches work, the doctor may recommend a surgical procedure to remove the ganglion cyst at its root. Though there is still a chance the cyst will recur, that’s less likely after surgery than with other treatment methods. Recovery from surgery to remove a ganglion cyst can take up to six weeks.

How is Yale Medicine unique in the treatment of ganglion cysts?

The Yale Medicine Hand and Microsurgery Program is among the most comprehensive in the area for evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of both simple and complex conditions of the hand, wrist, and forearm.

Our specialists work together to determine the best approach to diagnosing and treating even the most complex injuries, abnormalities, or diseases. Many patients who come to Yale Medicine find that treatment improves their hand function dramatically.

The Center for Musculoskeletal Care McGivney Advanced Surgery Center is a “state-of the art” facility staffed with expert nurses, anesthesiologist, surgeons, and support staff devoted to concepts of patient comfort and well-being before, during, and after surgery so that anxiety, pain, and recovery time are minimized.