Ganglion cyst

About ganglion cysts

Ganglion cysts are soft, gel-like masses that often change size.

They tend to be smooth and round, and are:

  • the most common type of swelling in the hand, wrist and foot
  • harmless and can safely be left alone

If you have a ganglion, try to stay positive. There's a lot you can do to help yourself.

What causes ganglion cysts?

A ganglion cyst starts when the fluid leaks out of a joint or tendon tunnel and forms a swelling beneath the skin.

The cause of the leak is generally unknown, but may be due to trauma or underlying arthritis.

How common are they?

Ganglion cysts are 3 times more common in women than men between 20 and 40 years of age.

Types of ganglion cysts

Ganglions can form:

  • at the back of the wrist - these typically occur in young adults and often disappears without treatment
  • at the front of the wrist - these may occur in young adults, but also seen in older people with arthritis
  • at the base of the finger (flexor tendon sheath) - these usually occur in young adults
  • on the finger (mucoid cyst) - these usually occur in middle-aged or older people

Approximately 80% of ganglions are found in the wrist.

Ganglion cyst symptoms

If you have a ganglion cyst the swelling can become noticeable, but often there are no symptoms at all.

Sometimes a ganglion can cause pain and limit movement in your joint. Some people are also concerned about the cysts appearance.

Most symptoms settle with time.

How they're diagnosed

To diagnose a ganglion cyst, a healthcare professional will ask you about it and examine your wrist and hand.

Giving a diagnosis is usually straightforward. However, scans may be helpful if the diagnosis is uncertain.

Treating a ganglion cyst

About 50% of ganglions disappear on their own without treatment. In the early stages you should wait to see if this happens.

You won't need treatment unless the cyst is painful.

Medication

Many people take medication to cope with their pain and symptoms, and help them remain active.

You may be prescribed pain medication to ease the pain. Make sure you take any medication as prescribed, and get advice from a GP, pharmacist or suitably trained healthcare professional.

Surgery

If the ganglion hasn't reduced in size after 6 months or is causing significant functional difficulty and/or pain, you may be referred for further help and possible surgery.

Surgery is considered if it causes significant pain or restricts movement in your joint. However, there's a chance it will come back even after surgery.

Ganglion cyst at the back of the wrist

Draining this ganglion can reduce the swelling but it often returns.

Problems after surgery include:

  • persistent pain
  • loss of wrist movement
  • painful trapping of nerve branches in the scar

There's a 10% chance of it coming back again after surgery.

Ganglion cyst at the front of the wrist

Draining this ganglion may be useful, but it can be dangerous as the cyst is often close to the artery at the wrist (where you can feel the pulse).

Problems after surgery include:

  • persistent pain
  • loss of wrist movement
  • trapping of nerve branches in the scar

For these reasons, many surgeons advise against operating on these cysts.

There's a 30 to 40% chance of it coming back again after surgery.

Ganglion cyst at the base of the finger

These ganglions feel like a dried pea at the base of the finger, and can cause pain when gripping.

Problems after surgery include:

  • persistent pain
  • loss of finger movement
  • painful trapping of nerve branches in the scar

There's a small chance of it coming back again after surgery.

Finger ganglion cyst

These ganglions are associated with wearing out of the end joint of a finger. Pressure from the cyst may cause a furrow in the fingernail. Occasionally the cyst fluid leaks through the thin overlying skin.

Problems after surgery include:

  • infection
  • stiffness and pain from the worn out joint

There's a 10% chance of it coming back again after surgery.

Work

If you have a ganglion cyst try to stay at or get back to work as soon as possible. You don't need to be fully pain and symptom free to return to work.

Research shows the longer you're off work the less likely you are to return.

Last updated:
11 May 2022