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Ovarian Pain: Possible Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatments

The ovaries are an important part of the female reproductive system. Their job is twofold. They produce the hormones, including estrogen, that trigger menstruation. They also release one egg each month for possible fertilization.

A number of different conditions, from cysts to tumors, can cause ovarian pain. The ovaries are located in the lower abdomen. That means if you have ovarian pain, you'll most likely feel it in your lower abdomen -- below your belly button -- and pelvis. It's important to have any pelvic pain checked out by your regular doctor or obstetrician/gynecologist. Several different conditions can cause it.

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Pain in the ovaries can either be acute or chronic. Acute ovarian pain comes on quickly (over a few minutes or days) and goes away in a short period of time. Chronic ovarian pain usually starts more gradually. Then it last for several months.

Ovarian pain may be continuous. Or it may come and go. It may get worse with certain activities, such as exercise or urination. It can be so mild that you don't notice it. Or pain in the ovaries can be so severe that it interferes with daily life.

The methods your doctor uses to diagnose ovarian pain will vary. They will be based on what the suspected cause might be. Regardless, your doctor will take a complete medical history, do a physical exam, and ask questions about your pain. The questions might include:

  • Where are you feeling the pain?
  • When did it start?
  • How often do you feel pain?
  • Does an activity make the pain better or worse?
  • How does it feel -- mild, burning, achy, sharp?
  • How does the pain affect your day-to-day life?

Diagnostic tests, such as ultrasound and other types of imaging, can zero in on the cause of the pain. Here is a rundown of some possible causes of ovarian pain and how they are diagnosed and treated.

Ovarian Cysts

Cysts are fluid-filled sacs that can form in the ovaries. They are very common in women, especially during the childbearing years. Often they form during the process of ovulation. It can happen when the egg is not released or when the sac -- follicle -- holding the egg doesn't dissolve after the egg is released. Ovarian cysts usually cause no symptoms and dissolve on their own. They can, though, create a dull ache or a sharp pain if one twists or ruptures.

Other symptoms of ovarian cysts:

  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Pain during intercourse or bowel movements
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Feeling full after eating a small amount
  • Bloating

How ovarian cysts are diagnosed

  • Pelvic exam. This exam may reveal a lump in the pelvic area.
  • Ultrasound. This scan uses sound waves to create an image of the ovaries. This helps the doctor determine the size and location of a cyst.

Treatment of ovarian cysts

  • Watchful waiting. Most ovarian cysts will go away on their own. If you don't have any bothersome symptoms, especially if you haven't yet gone through menopause, your doctor may advocate "watchful waiting." The doctor won't treat you. Instead, the doctor might check you periodically to see if there has been any change in your condition.
  • Laparoscopy. This is a form of surgery that uses small incisions and a tiny, lighted camera on the end of a plastic tube that's inserted into the abdomen. A surgeon can use tools on the end of the tube to remove some cysts. This technique works for smaller cysts. Larger cysts, though, may need to be removed through a bigger incision in the abdomen. This is done with a technique called laparotomy.
  • Birth control pills.Birth control pills may relieve the pain from ovarian cysts. They prevent ovulation. That, in turn, reduces the formation of new cysts.

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