Doctors are not completely sure why ganglion cysts occur. They appear when small tears in the tendon membrane or joint capsule form, allowing the thick synovial fluid which surrounds a tendon or joint (cushioning and protecting them during movement) to leak and accumulate within a sac (1). These fluid-filled swellings usually appear on wrists and the backs of the hands, but can also develop on knees, ankles and the feet. These cysts can be as small as a pea or as large as a golf ball, and are usually soft and immobile. Ganglion cysts are generally benign (non-cancerous) and often recede on their own without any medical intervention (2). They can nevertheless take a few years to disappear. Standard medical treatment for ganglion cysts usually involves surgical removal or fluid extraction with needles. However, there are home treatments for ganglion cysts that can reduce the swelling and alleviate pain without the need for surgery.
Scientists are presently unsure as to why women between 20 and 40 years old have the greatest tendency to develop ganglion cysts (3).
Ganglion cysts typically appear on a sufferers’ wrist. Cysts on the back of the wrist are known as dorsal cysts and those on the front are known as palmar cysts.
Dorsal ganglion cysts are more common in younger women and are formed by secretions from a wrist ligament. Patients who are ‘double’ or ‘loose-jointed’ are more likely to suffer from them and if the patient is older, the cysts tend to be associated with osteoarthritis or the wrist joint. Fortunately, though, younger patients with dorsal cysts are not any more prone to arthritis in older age than they otherwise would be without a cyst.
Ganglia cysts on the front of the wrist are more common in middle-aged patients and, like dorsal ganglia, tend to be related to a degradation of the wrist joint itself and is often a sign of the onset of early osteoarthritis at a finger’s end joint (4).
Medical treatment of Ganglion cysts
There are two main treatment options for removing a ganglion cyst. It can be cut out via surgery, or the fluid can be drained out of the cyst via a needle and a syringe (aspiration). Patients who have their cyst removed via either method will be fitted with a splint for approximately a week, and can usually recover within two to eight weeks. Doctors typically recommend certain exercises to help the patient regain his or her joint mobility after the surgery.
Aspiration is usually recommended for older adults, since patients often suffer from persistent pain, the trapping of nerve branches within the resultant scar and a loss of wrist movement after surgery.
In some cases, ganglion cysts can cause pain and discomfort. If the cysts are painful or begin to limit a joint’s range of movement, medical intervention is recommended to remove them (5). The presence of a cyst on a tendon can also cause muscle weakness, since tendons connect muscle to bones.
Unfortunately, ganglion cysts can return after treatment (6). This occurs in nearly 50% of patients who have them removed via needle aspiration, and returns less often when they have been surgically excised. A cyst which has been aspirated three times has an over 80% chance of being permanently removed.
While home remedies cannot remove a ganglion cyst, they can be useful in alleviating the discomfort that may be caused by the condition:
Home treatments for ganglion cysts
- Black or green tea (Camellia sinensis)
Black and green tea has been proven to contain antioxidant properties, anti-inflammatory activities, and can even inhibit tumor growth (7). While tea cannot remove a ganglion cyst, it can help alleviate the pain and swelling, and help prevent the condition from worsening.
To benefit from its anti-inflammatory effects, simply dip a green or black tea bag in warm water for about five minutes. Take it out and squeeze away any excess water. Place the wet and warm tea bag on the swelling for approximately 10 minutes. You can repeat this process several times a day to cope with any pain or discomfort caused by the cyst.
Likewise, ginger has long been used to address a large range of ailments, such as gastrointestinal disorders (stomach aches, nausea, vomiting, etc.), arthritis and motion sickness (8). The antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticarcinogenic properties of its active ingredients (e.g. gingerols and shogaols) can help alleviate the pain, inflammation, and discomfort caused by ganglion cysts.
You can introduce more ginger into your diet through various ways. You can consume it in liquid form (e.g. by drinking 2-3 cups of ginger tea each day), in supplement form, or add more ginger to your cooking.
Turmeric works in a similar fashion and is another great home treatment for ganglion cysts. It is a potent herb with anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimicrobial, hepatoprotective, immunostimulant, antiseptic, and antimutagenic qualities (9). Scientists have identified curcumin, a diferuloylmethane, as the active agent within turmeric. It has been proven to “regulate numerous transcription factors, cytokines, protein kinases, adhesion molecules, redox status and enzymes that have been linked to inflammation” (10).
To help alleviate any pain or discomfort caused by a ganglion cyst, apply a mixture of turmeric powder and warm water to the swelling two to three times each day over a few days. You can also consume it in supplement form, or by adding it to your cooking.
Ginseng has long been used as a traditional medicinal herb, and modern science has recently validated its various health benefits. Scientific research has studied and analysed its antioxidant, anti-inflammation, anti-fatigue, antidiabetic, antitumor, immunomodulation, anti-obesity, cardioprotective, antimicrobial, neuroprotective and aphrodisiac properties (12). In particular, its bioactive withanolides are helpful in suppressing a variety of inflammatory and carcinogenic agents (13).
Ginseng can be consumed via various forms: whole root, root powder (white ginseng), teas, standardized root extracts, steamed root powder (red ginseng), heat processed root powder (sun ginseng), and steamed and dried roots for five days and nine times respectively (black ginseng) (14). Scientists have faced challenges in precisely quantifying the medicinal properties of ginseng, since ginseng preparations can differ according to the species used, the age and part of the plant used, the method of preservation, the method of extraction and the season of harvest.
- Echinacea (purple coneflower)
Native American communities have used the nine known species of Echinacea (also known as the purple coneflower and American coneflower) as a form of traditional medicine (15). It has been used as a dietary supplement to fight again the common cold and other infections due to its perceived ability to boost the immune system, and has been applied to wounds and skin problems.
Scientific research has demonstrated that Echinacea consumption increases the production of the complement properdin, which boosts and stimulates the immune system (16). To benefit from its immunomodulating effects, you can consume the plant in the form of tea, squeezed juices, extracts, capsules or tablets.
- Frankincense oil
Frankincense is a traditional Eastern medicine and a great home treatment for ganglion cysts. It contains Boswellia resin, which has various anti-inflammatory, expectorant, antiseptic, and even anxiolytic and anti-neurotic properties (17). Scientific research has demonstrated its analgesic, anti-inflammatory, tranquilizing, anti-bacterial effects and anti-proliferative effect on tumors.
To benefit from its therapeutic properties, simply apply two drops of frankincense oil onto your swelling and cover it with a clean bandage. Change the bandage once each day, until the pain and discomfort subsides.
- Consult your doctor about the lump (even if it is not painful) to ensure that it is not a symptom of another disease.
- Consult your doctor if the cyst is painful, if it causes sensations of numbness, or if it hampers your mobility
- Maintain a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods (including the herbs listed above, as well as fresh fruits, vegetables, salmon and olive oil)
- Engage in simple aerobic exercises (running, swimming, cycling, etc.) to improve your blood circulation
- You can also attempt to improve your blood circulation by taking a full body massage every now and then and massaging the affected limb regularly
- Do not apply ‘Bible therapy’ (a traditional method of treating a ganglion cyst), i.e. slamming the cyst with a weighty book like the Bible
- Do not try to puncture the cyst with a needle, scissors, or another sharp object, as this could cause an infection
- Avoid moving your wrist or hand repetitively if the cyst has formed there
- Avoid wearing footwear that covers or touches the cyst if it has formed on your feet
- Avoid eating or drinking inflammatory foods (e.g. white-flour products, white rice, soft drinks and sodas, processed meat, sugary foods, junk food and foods that are rich in saturated fats).