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What Is a Ganglion Cyst? 

Ganglion cysts are small lumps or masses on the hand or wrist. They are the most common type of lump on the wrist or hand. Often painless and mostly harmless, ganglion cysts grow out of tissue that makes up a joint, such as tendons, ligaments and cartilage. The cysts themselves are filled with a substance that resembles synovial fluid, which lubricates joints. 


Ganglion cysts usually do not hurt or cause symptoms. They appear as raised bumps ranging from pea-sized to the size of a quarter or larger. Often small masses remain under the skin and do not cause a bump. 

The lumps themselves are painless. However, if they press on a nerve, the nerve compression can cause: 

  • Numbness 

  • Pain 

  • Tingling 

  • Weakness 

Causes and Risk Factors 

The cause or causes of ganglion cysts are unknown. They occur in people of all ages, but women and those between the ages of 15 and 40 are most likely to develop these lumps of the wrist or hand. Gymnasts commonly develop them on the wrists. People who develop ganglion cysts at the farthest finger joint—sometimes called mucous cysts—often have osteoarthritis of the hand. 


Ganglion cysts can usually be diagnosed with a simple physical examination. Doctors will often use an interesting diagnostic technique: They will shine a flashlight on the lump. If the beam of light partially passes through the mass, it is most likely a ganglion cyst. If it doesn’t, that means it’s another type of mass. 

Other types of hand masses that can be confused for ganglion cysts include: 

  • Epidermal cyst—similar to a ganglion cyst but more dense, and light does not pass through it 

  • Other tumors—abnormal growths that can be cancerous (technically a ganglion cyst is a tumor because it is an abnormal growth, but it is not cancerous) 

  • Tenosynovitis—inflammation of the tendon sheath, which can cause swelling 

A doctor may request diagnostic imaging such as X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to confirm what type of lump is on the hand or wrist. 


Ganglion cyst treatment almost always begins with a conservative, nonsurgical approach. If the mass does not cause pain, a doctor may recommend simply watching and waiting. Many ganglion cysts go away on their own over time. 

Activity can cause the cyst to grow and press on a nerve, so physicians may recommend rest. Aspiration may be another effective treatment. A needle is inserted into the cyst and the fluid within is drained. The cyst may come back, however, because aspiration does not remove the root of the ganglion cyst from the joint. Summit Health offers ultrasound-guided aspiration with the Radiology department, to which many orthopedics specialists refer patients. 

Surgery can be a treatment option if the mass is causing pain and nonsurgical methods of treatment have not worked. Surgery involves either an open or arthroscopic procedure to cut out the lump and its stalk. 

There is a folk remedy of bashing the cyst with a heavy object such as a book to get rid of it. DO NOT DO THIS, as you can cause damage to the hand and wrist. 

If you have a lump on the wrist or hand, you should have it checked out to make sure it’s not something that might require immediate attention. Request an appointment with one of our hand and wrist specialists today. We will be able to diagnose the mass and provide whatever treatment is needed. 

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