10 Things Doctors Wish You Knew About Ganglion Cysts

Updated: Mar. 18, 2021

If a lump pops up on your wrist, it could be a ganglion cyst. Here is what ganglion cysts look like and how to get rid of them for good.

old woman suffering from wrist hand pain, health problem concept

What is that weird lump?

I woke up one day last summer with a lump on my wrist. I thought: Hmm, that’s weird. Being kind of worrywart, I panicked: Could it be cancer?

Any mysterious bump or lump on your skin is troubling, and this one started out the size of a marble but, within days, was almost as large as a SuperBall. That’s when I hightailed it to an orthopedist. The specialist pressed on it, bent my wrist a few times, and told me it was a ganglion cyst—a benign fluid-filled lump that grows on the joints or tendons. I was relieved—and surprised that I knew so little about these incredibly common growths. To make sure you know how to spot and treat one, we asked Dennis Cardone, MD, a sports medicine doctor at NYU Langone Health in New York City to share the essential facts about ganglion cysts. (Find out what’s really behind other mysterious bumps on your skin.)

an wrist bent at a 90-degree angle with a bump revealing a ganglion cyst
Krieng Meemano/Shutterstock

A tough little—or not-so-little—bump

You’d think ganglion cysts would be squishy. After all, they’re filled with a thick gelatinous fluid. But they’re often unexpectedly hard. “A ganglion feels firm, but when you push you can tell it’s a firm fluid,” explains Dr. Cardone. Other clear signs you’ve got a ganglion: Your bump is a very regular shape (think perfectly rounded edges) and it’s mobile (in other words, you’re able to push it around a little bit). (You should also learn how to recognize Tarlov cysts.)

a cast aluminum pen light
Alexander Yakimov/Shutterstock

Shine a light on it

Point a flashlight or penlight at your lump, suggest the experts at Cleveland Clinic. If light shines through it, you know you have a ganglion cyst. (Sure enough, the first doctor I saw used this test on mine.) Why is this exercise, so, well, illuminating? It’s simple: A bump won’t light up if it’s a solid mass—only if it’s a liquid-filled one. (Quit doing these everyday habits that cause skin problems.)

a person massaging his foot
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Ganglion cysts can pop up almost anywhere

Turns out, I had a typical ganglion: 60 to 70 percent develop on the front or back of the wrist, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Other popular locations: The feet and fingers, but you can get them near any joint, says Dr. Cardone. “And if you’ve had an injury to a joint or tendon, you’re more prone to developing one there,” he says.

Tetris-like colored wooden blocks
Radachynskyi Serhii/Shutterstock

They are shapeshifters

Well, not exactly, but you may notice your cyst getting larger and smaller, as the fluid level inside changes. They can even go away on their own. Or not. “Sometimes the cyst will spontaneously leak or burst, the body reabsorbs the fluid and it goes down, only to fill back up again,” says Dr. Cardone. Consider it just another example of typical body weirdness. (Learn about 13 more strange facts about your body.)

Black woman looking at a laptop computer

Ganglions are not an old lady thing

Finally, a health problem that’s not a sign you’re getting older! It’s actually younger women—age 20 to 40—who are most plagued by these cysts, according to the Mayo Clinic. Even super-fit folks and children can develop them (Dr. Cardone just treated an 18-year-old basketball player with one on the back of her knee). Guys are less prone, though they do get ’em. (Here are 13 other conditions that affect men and women differently.)

a doctor and a patient looking at an x-ray

Phew! Ganglion cysts never, ever turn into cancer

The top misconception is “they could turn into something cancerous,” says Dr. Cardone. “But they’re always completely benign.” While imaging tests aren’t usually needed to make a diagnosis, doctors will sometimes take an X-ray to make sure that the joint looks healthy. If there is any question about the diagnosis, more films are in order. “People get concerned when they hear the word ‘mass’ and they want to be 100 percent sure, so we’ll do an MRI or ultrasound if there’s any doubt, or if it’s a deeper cyst,” Dr. Cardone adds. Still, watch for these 15 signs of cancer women often ignore.

a leather-bound bible on a wooden table

They used to be called Bible cysts

Standard treatment a few generations ago was whacking the cyst with a bible or dictionary. Is there anything to that old-school remedy? “If you happen to bang it, it might temporarily go down,” concedes Dr. Cardone, “but I would not recommend it because you could cause trauma to the joint.” A small, odd 2016 study by researchers from Hospital for Special Surgery in New York studied people who had posted YouTube videos of themselves using blunt force (from a book, a frying pan) to obliterate their cysts. The researchers concluded that these primitive methods were effective 83 percent of the time. But not worth the risk!

doctor preparing an hypodermic syringe injection

You can choose your (treatment) adventure

One option: Do nothing. Unless your cyst is pressing on a nerve and causing pain or interfering with muscle function, there is no medical reason to treat it, says Dr. Cardone. But if it hurts or you don’t love the lumpy look, you can have it aspirated, as I did. In this quickie, in-office procedure, your doctor sticks a needle into the cyst and drains out the fluid. Alas, about half of the time, the cyst fills back up with fluid. Solution: Go back for a repeat treatment, advises Dr. Cardone: “With wrist ganglions, evidence shows that by the second or third aspiration it’s less likely to recur.” If your lump keeps coming back or is in an awkward spot, surgery—often a more permanent solution (but not guaranteed)—may be recommended. You’ll be in good company going under the knife: Miley Cyrus had surgery to remove a ganglion cyst in 2014, according to E! Online. You should also go to the doctor if you have any of these 10 strange skin problems that could be a sign of a serious disease.

person examining their wrist with their other hand

You may soon be saying: Hello, old friend

The truth is, once you’ve had a ganglion, you’re prone to getting them again. I look at it this way: If my bump on the wrist returns, I’ll know just what to do. Keep calm, remember they’re harmless, and don’t whack it with a kitchen tool. In the meantime, watch out for these 42 strange symptoms that can signal a serious disease.