How to Treat Wrist Ganglion Cyst

Lumps on the Back of the Hand

doctor checking a patient's hand
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A wrist ganglion cyst is a swelling that usually occurs around the hand or wrist. A ganglion cyst is a fluid-filled capsule; they are not cancerous, will not spread, and while they may grow in size, they will not spread to other parts of your body. Ganglion cysts can occur on the back of the hand or on the palm side of the wrist. When they occur on the back of the hand, they are called a dorsal ganglion cyst. When they occur on the palm side of the wrist they are called volar ganglion cysts.

Causes

Ganglion cysts are in fact not even "true cysts," but rather arise as pouches of fluid that comes from the small joints of the wrist, or from the fluid within the sheath that surrounds the wrist tendons. When the fluid, called synovial fluid, leaks out from these spaces, it can form a sack-like structure that we call a ganglion cyst. The fluid within the ganglion cyst is identical to the normal fluid found within a joint or within a tendon sheath. The fluid is gelatinous and looks and feels like jelly.

It is important to have this type of lump checked by your doctor to ensure it is simply a ganglion cyst.

While most lumps and bumps of the hand and wrist are ganglion cysts (by far the most common), there are other conditions that have different treatments. Other types of tumors such as a lipoma or giant cell tumor, infections, carpal bossing (bone spur), and other conditions can cause lumps around the wrist.

Symptoms

Ganglion cysts are usually noticed as a bump on the hand or wrist. Most people notice they may gradually change in size, and sometimes come and go, often depending on activity level. Typical symptoms of a ganglion cyst include:

  • Pain and tenderness
  • Difficulty with gripping activities
  • Numbness and tingling

Most of the symptoms are thought to be the result of pressure from the cyst on surrounding structures including tendons and nerves.

Diagnosis

Ganglion cysts may be tender, but most often it is the appearance of the cyst that bothers patients. The cyst should not adhere to the skin, and the skin should have a normal color. One test to diagnose a ganglion cyst is to hold a light source, such as a small flashlight, against the cyst. A normal ganglion cyst will trans-illuminate, meaning light will pass through the cyst indicating it is not a solid mass.

Special studies are typically not necessary, but some doctors will obtain an X-ray just to ensure the anatomy and structure of the hand and wrist is normal. If there is a question about if the bump is a cyst or something else, imaging tests including ultrasound or MRIs can be helpful.

Treatment

Sometimes, wrist ganglion cysts go away with no treatment, or they may linger around or even grow larger. The cysts typically form a type of one-way valve such that fluid enters the cyst easily, but cannot escape. When the ganglion cyst becomes large enough, it will begin to put pressure on surrounding structures. This pressure can cause painful symptoms and is usually the reason these ganglion cysts are removed. There are several methods of treatment for a wrist ganglion cyst.

No Treatment

Many hand and wrist experts recommend no treatment for cysts at all. While some people don't like the look of a ganglion cyst, and some people have discomfort, the cysts are generally not harmful, and many patients feel much better once reassured that the cyst is not going to cause any long-term problem. Particularly with volar ganglion cysts, the treatment can be problematic, and complications including infection, tendon injury, and recurrence of the cyst can all occur.

If the cyst can be tolerated, many experts advise they be left alone.

Aspiration

Putting a needle into the ganglion cyst and aspirating the fluid may work. However, the gelatinous fluid within the cyst does not always come through a needle very well. Furthermore, this treatment leaves the cyst lining behind, and the ganglion cyst will return about 50 percent of the time. The advantage of draining the cyst is that it is a simple procedure to perform, and the chance of a problem happening is very small. The downside is that the chance of recurrence is quite high.

Surgery

The most aggressive treatment for a persistent or painful ganglion cyst is to remove it with a surgical procedure. During surgery, the wrist ganglion is completely excised, including the sac that surrounded the fluid. In addition, the connection to the joint or tendon sheath that supplied the fluid can be occluded. While this usually is effective, a small percentage of removed wrist ganglion will still return. Surgical treatment has been well described both as an open surgical procedure (through a skin incision) and as an arthroscopic procedure. Different surgeons have preferences for their favored approach.

Home Remedy

Another alternative, that some call traditional, others call a bit barbaric, is to smash the wrist ganglion cyst with a hard object such as a book. This pops the cyst and ruptures the lining of the sac. While many people are familiar with this treatment, it is not considered acceptable as there is the potential for other damage from the trauma of the treatment.

Attempts to crush the cyst can result in injury. There are rare reports of fracture of the bones around the wrist associated with overzealous efforts to crush the cyst.

A Word From Verywell

Ganglion cysts are very common causes of bumps around the hand and wrist. A ganglion cyst is not cancer or a problem that requires urgent treatment, but sometimes it can be bothersome for people. When they do become a bother, treatment can be performed to help address the symptoms. Often doctors will try some simple treatments first, and if these are not successful a surgical procedure might be offered to remove the cyst.

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