Ganglion Cysts: A Complete Guide

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The human body is a weird, organic machine, and sometimes a bit of grit gets into the gears. Joints break down, tendons tear, and weird bumps appear.

Problems arise from time to time, causing all manner of issues and unpleasantness. Ganglion cysts are one of the latter.

What is a ganglion cyst, you ask?

what is a ganglion cyst

A ganglion cyst is a small tumor or abnormal growth that can form on joints or upon tendons. They are not cancerous growths, so don’t panic!

Rather, they are cysts full of jelly-like liquid that, at most, can inhibit mobility and cause pain. Found a bump on your foot and not sure what it is? It’s probably a ganglion cyst on your foot.

Ganglion Cysts

The most important thing to know about these cysts is that they are not life-threatening or dangerous! Ganglion cysts are, simply put, balls of harmless liquid – though unsightly in some cases.

Now, these types of cysts can be painful, and should they grow large or in a particular spot, they can reduce movement and mobility.

Cysts that form on tendons in the hand can cause one or more fingers to be weaker. If a bump on top of your foot is a cyst, it will make wearing enclosed shoes pretty uncomfortable as well.

Any abnormal growths found on your body should be shoved under a doctors’ trained eye ASAP, regardless, but at least you will know that these particular types of cysts aren’t going to result in anything overly unpleasant.

To reiterate: Ganglion cysts are not at risk of turning cancerous. Reading the word tumor can instantly make people freak out, but please don’t fret.

What Causes Ganglion Cysts to Form?

Here’s the thing… no one really knows what the ganglion cyst causes are, or why they form.

Some believe that repeated trauma to the joint or tendons is the reason behind a cyst forming, such as injuries and stresses in sports like golf, tennis, or squash.

Given that many deformities in bones and muscles come from sports-related trauma, it is not a far stretch to think that ganglion cysts are caused by this.

Others theorize that defects in the tendons and joints cause cysts to grow. Have a cyst on your foot? Yeah, maybe that was caused by a broken bone that didn’t heal right.

Found a bump growing on your hand? Possibly a long-term result from that time your sibling jabbed you with a pen when you were kids. Seems legit.

But overall, ganglion cysts appear to pop up randomly. They don’t have a rhyme or reason. Instead, they just appear.

All we really know is that ganglion cysts are more common in women and in people between the ages of 20 and 40. They can form in children, too, but only rarely.

Despite the fact that no one completely understands why ganglion cysts form, there are plenty of treatments for removing these issues.

Where do they form?

Unlike other forms of cysts, ganglion cysts don’t pop up all over the body. They are most often found on the hand or wrist.

However, Ganglion cysts can also appear under your fingernails, on the outsides of the knee and ankle, and on the top of your feet. Basically, joints that put up with a lot of repeated stress and use are where these cysts will form.

You will know when a cyst of this type has formed by sight and feel. A noticeable lump will appear under the skin. Depending on the size and age of the cyst, it may feel firm or squishy to the touch.

It isn’t really recommended to poke at these, however, so perhaps leave a closer examination to your doctor.

How Big Do They Get?

Ganglion cysts can range from the size of a pea to the size of a large marble; some are even small enough that you can have them for years without knowing. In these cases, a doctor may resort to using an MRI or ultrasound machine to examine the cyst.

A common trait of ganglion cysts, too, is that they can suddenly shrink or swell in size within a matter of days.

Small cysts are hardly a problem, but larger cysts can begin to impair movement and cause pain – something to keep in mind if you have been putting off a doctor’s visit.

ganglion cyst home treatment
By GE Malone (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 licence)

Signs and Symptoms

Aside from a noticeable lump forming on one of the joints above, or under your fingernail, you may feel a tenderness or persistent ache in the affected area.

Depending on where the cyst is located, there may also be a weakness in the attached limb or digit. This is most common when the cyst forms on a tendon in your finger or wrist. The larger the cyst, too, the more pain you will feel and the greater mobility you will lose.

If the cyst is pressing on a nerve, then a numbness or tingling sensation may be present as well. In this case, it is strongly advised to seek out a doctor.

If a cyst is restricting blood flow, it could seriously impair mobility to your fingers or hand.

Visiting a Doctor About Ganglion Cysts

So, you have noticed a lump on top of your foot and run off to the doctor with a ‘what the heck?’ expression.

They’ve made you sit on an exam bed, the paper-ish covering crackling under your butt, and are making hmm and aah noises as they poke this weird lump on your foot. In this case, don’t panic.

Diagnosing a ganglion cyst is a pretty simple process. There will be the initial physical examination, in which the doctor will gently feel the lump to determine what the next step will be.

If the cyst is soft, your doctor may use a syringe to draw a portion of the cyst fluid out for a lookie-loo. If the cyst is hard or really small, an ultrasound will be in order.

Sometimes, doctors will bypass the syringe altogether and go straight for an ultrasound to get a good look at the cyst.

Depending on the location of the cyst, and your own personal decision, you may move forward with one of the treatments below.

Ganglion Cyst Treatments

Cysts can sometimes require surgery for draining or removal. Ganglion cysts are typically only treated with surgery when they are large, restricting mobility, very painful, or pressing on a nerve or artery. Otherwise, they are left to less drastic treatments.

ganglion cyst treatment
By Cieslaw (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 licence)

You may not even need treatment at all! Ganglion cysts are known for disappearing and reappearing on a whim.

Unless the cyst is severely impairing mobility or causing pain, most doctors will prefer to wait and see if the cyst goes down in size before breaking out the scalpel.

There is one exception to this. Ganglion cysts on the feet often require surgery for removal, simply due to how much pressure the feet have to deal with every day.

Cysts, if placed under constant or repeated pressure, can burst or become inflamed. Cysts that have gone to this level can cause a lot of pain. No one wants that – so if you notice a lump growing on your foot or ankle, see your GP sooner rather than later.


A lump on top of the foot can be incredibly uncomfortable. It makes wearing most types of footwear difficult, and can really put a hamper in day to day activities.

For this reason, and to prevent the cyst from swelling in size, surgery is the first and last form of treatment for ganglion cysts on the feet.

Surgery for cyst removal is pretty simple. It is important to know that there is always a chance that the cyst will return – even after a successful surgery. This is purely because of the nature of the blighted things.

Now, if surgery is not necessary and you decide to move forward with a treatment to get rid of the cyst, there is only really one option apart from the old ‘wait and see’ approach…


Anyone that is squeamish about needles may not be too happy with this treatment. Aspiration is the method where the thick liquid within the cyst is drawn out with a needle.

Depending on the size of the cyst, and whether or not aspiration works the first time, multiple draining sessions may be needed. As many as three or more sessions could be required, in fact.

Aspiration can be a tiresome treatment but is the only effective means of excising a cyst without the use of surgery.

Here’s a video showing an example of the process.

This can be an uncomfortable treatment, and will often require injection of an anti-inflammatory to prevent swelling, as well as wearing a brace to immobilize the joint.


In order to prevent the cyst from becoming stressed, immobilizing the affected joint is an effective way of coaxing the ganglion cyst to shrink in size. This may mean taping, splinting, or bracing the joint to minimize strain and movement.

Should you know the proper way to brace a joint, then you can use this method to shrink ganglion cysts down yourself. It is important to remember, though, that if the cyst does hurt, presses on a nerve, or impairs your mobility, you should seek out a doctor.


Ganglions cysts are harmless sacs of fluid that can grow on the hands and feet. While they can cause some pain and inhibit mobility, they are non-cancerous and easily treated.

Have you ever found a weird bump growing on your foot? It is more than likely a ganglion cyst. Don’t freak out! Just head over to your doctor and get them to look at it. It’s as simple as that!