The ovaries take care of some pretty important jobs in your body, from housing the egg cells that allow you to conceive through to regulating your hormone levels. If your gynecologist tells you one of your ovaries is enlarged, it’s understandable to be anxious. Let’s run through some of the common causes of swollen ovaries, and how your healthcare team will help you take care of it.
What is an enlarged ovary?
The ovaries are the two olive-sized organs on either side of the uterus, containing your lifetime supply of egg cells. When one grows larger than its usual size of 2 to 3 cm across, it can be referred to as an enlarged ovary or swollen ovary. Ovarian swelling can sometimes cause the following symptoms:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Pain or discomfort during sex or other pelvic movements
- Swelling or bloating in the abdomen
- Frequent need to urinate
- Pain when using the toilet
However, ovarian swelling doesn’t always cause any symptoms. In fact, the first you might learn of an enlarged ovary is when it shows up as part of a routine gynecological exam or scan.
Enlarged ovary causes
There is a range of reasons why one or both ovaries could become swollen, but it’s commonly associated with ovarian cysts. “Cysts” might sound somewhat alarming, but these are usually not too great a cause for concern.
Remember, the ovaries are in the business of making cysts: each month, an ovarian follicle swells to develop and release an egg at ovulation. If it fails to “pop” or shrivel away, it could result in a cyst.
So I have a swollen ovary – now what happens?
A pelvic exam can show if that you have an enlarged ovary, but it doesn’t tell your gynecologist the cause. A follow-up transvaginal ultrasound or blood test will help your healthcare provider diagnose ovarian cancer.
If the tests show a growth could be cancerous, your doctors will likely perform a biopsy on the ovary to check. This is usually done by a laparoscopy (“keyhole surgery”), or sometimes laparotomy (abdominal surgery).
Enlarged ovary treatments and management
Treatment for an enlarged ovary depends on the cause of the swelling.
Cysts that are caused by the normal processes of the menstrual cycle are referred to as functional cysts. In many cases, functional cysts will clear up on their own, and don’t need any special treatment.
However, if you get these cysts frequently, your doctor may prescribe birth control pills to help stabilize your hormone levels. This will not shrink cysts you already have, but may help prevent new ones from forming.
Benign growths don’t risk spreading to harm other tissues, but they can still cause problems if they grow too large and cause the ovaries to twist on its stalk. Your doctors may recommend these are removed through surgery.
Malignant or “borderline” growths
If detected early enough, ovarian cancer is highly treatable. However, in many cases, it’s not picked up until symptoms are occurring and the cancer has already advanced.
If you have a cancerous ovarian growth (or a growth that looks like it could become cancerous), your doctors will use surgery to remove it, and possibly the entire affected ovary. If the cancer has spread, this may also mean removing the uterus and fallopian tubes. You may also be prescribed chemotherapy to kill remaining cancer cells.
Stay alert about enlarged ovaries
Since ovarian swelling doesn’t always cause symptoms, the best way to stay on top of your ovarian health is to see your doctor for regular checkups. If you’ve just received news that you have an enlarged ovary and need further tests, it’s no wonder if you feel a bit anxious.
However, a swollen ovary from time to time is something many women experience, and the majority of ovarian swelling comes down to benign causes. Further tests will help your healthcare work out if anything else needs to be done to keep you healthy.