During the physical exam, your doctor may apply pressure to the cyst to test for tenderness or discomfort. He or she may try to shine a light through the cyst to determine if it's a solid mass or filled with fluid.
Your doctor might also recommend imaging tests — such as X-rays, ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) — to rule out other conditions, such as arthritis or a tumor. MRIs and ultrasounds also can locate hidden (occult) cysts.
A ganglion cyst diagnosis may be confirmed by aspiration, a process in which your doctor uses a needle and syringe to draw out (aspirate) the fluid in the cyst. Fluid from a ganglion cyst will be thick and clear or translucent.
Ganglion cysts are often painless, requiring no treatment. Your doctor may suggest a watch-and-wait approach. If the cyst is causing pain or interfering with joint movement, your doctor may recommend:
- Immobilization. Because activity can cause the ganglion cyst to get larger, it may help to temporarily immobilize the area with a brace or splint. As the cyst shrinks, it may release the pressure on your nerves, relieving pain. Avoid long-term use of a brace or splint, which can cause the nearby muscles to weaken.
- Aspiration. In this procedure, your doctor uses a needle to drain the fluid from the cyst. The cyst may recur.
- Surgery. This may be an option if other approaches haven't worked. During this procedure, the doctor removes the cyst and the stalk that attaches it to the joint or tendon. Rarely, the surgery can injure the surrounding nerves, blood vessels or tendons. And the cyst can recur, even after surgery.
Lifestyle and home remedies
To relieve pain, consider an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve). In some cases, modifying your shoes or how you lace them can relieve the pain associated with ganglion cysts on your ankles or feet.
Things not to do
An old home remedy for a ganglion cyst consisted of "thumping" the cyst with a heavy object. This isn't a good solution because the force of the blow can damage surrounding structures in your hand or foot. Also don't try to "pop" the cyst yourself by puncturing it with a needle. This is unlikely to be effective and can lead to infection.
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your primary care doctor. He or she may refer you to a hand surgeon.
What you can do
Before your appointment, you may want to write answers to the following questions:
- How long have you had the lump? Does it come and go?
- Have you ever injured the joint nearest the lump?
- Do you have arthritis?
- What medications and supplements do you take regularly?
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may reserve time to go over any points you want to spend more time on. Your doctor may ask:
- Do you have any pain or tenderness?
- Is it interfering with your ability to use your joint?
- What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
- What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?