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Ganglion Cysts and Lupus: What’s the Connection?

Medically reviewed by Maria Lolou, M.D., M.S.
Posted on July 14, 2023

Finding a new lump on your body can be worrisome, and it’s important to know whether or not it’s something serious. People living with lupus sometimes develop a type of lump called a ganglion cyst. These fluid-filled lumps are usually harmless and painless and often appear near joints or tendons of hands and wrists.

“Does anyone else suffer from this in the hands or wrist?” one MyLupusTeam member asked. Another replied, “Yes, I had a ganglion cyst on my right wrist. I am told it’s common in lupus.”

In this article, we will explain what ganglion cysts are, how they’re related to lupus, and what you can do about them.

Ganglion cysts are typically round or oval-shaped and most often develop along tendons or joints of the wrists or hands. They’re filled with a jelly-like fluid and can change in size. (CC BY-SA 3.0/Esturcke at English Wikipedia)

What Are Ganglion Cysts?

A ganglion cyst is a harmless lump that typically appears near joints or tendons. Ganglion cysts are often found in the wrists, hands, or fingers, but can also appear on the ankles and feet.

Ganglion cysts are filled with a thick, jelly-like fluid that is very similar to the fluid in your joints. These cysts are often round or oval and can vary in size, ranging from small, like a pea, to larger than an inch in diameter.

Usually, ganglion cysts are harmless and painless but, in some cases, may require treatment.

What Are the Symptoms of Ganglion Cysts?

Ganglion cysts can cause specific symptoms that vary depending on their size, location, and whether they’re close to nerves or blood vessels. While many ganglion cysts don’t cause any problems and can go unnoticed, some people may experience the following symptoms:

  • Discomfort or pain — Although most ganglion cysts aren’t painful, they can cause discomfort or pain if they exert pressure on nearby nerves or blood vessels. The pain can be described as a dull ache or a sharp, shooting sensation. The intensity of the pain can range from mild to severe and may worsen during specific movements or activities.
  • Limited range of motion — In certain cases, ganglion cysts can interfere with how your joint moves, limiting your range of motion. This can impact daily activities — for instance, a ganglion cyst on the wrist might make it challenging to hold objects or perform specific hand movements.
  • Tingling or numbness — When a ganglion cyst puts pressure on a nerve, it can cause tingling or numbness in the affected area. This feeling is often described as a pins-and-needles sensation.
  • Changes in skin texture — Ganglion cysts can sometimes cause changes to the skin on top of it. The skin may appear shiny, stretched, or discolored.

It's important to know that ganglion cysts can sometimes look like other conditions, such as tumors or cysts from different causes. So, if you notice a lump or experience any of the symptoms mentioned above, it's a good idea to see a doctor to get an accurate diagnosis.

Are Ganglion Cysts Related to Lupus?

Ganglion cysts aren’t directly caused by systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) — the most common type of lupus — but they may be related in other ways.

Lupus mainly affects your immune system, causing it to mistakenly attack healthy tissues and organs. Despite this, lupus does not specifically target or cause ganglion cysts. However, it’s worth noting that people with lupus often develop other types of joint-related conditions, such as arthritis or Sjögren’s syndrome.

Although lupus may not directly cause ganglion cysts, it’s not uncommon for people living with lupus to develop these nodules. In one study, researchers evaluated the wrist joints of 26 people with SLE and found that 3.8 percent had ganglia (the plural of ganglion cysts) present. However, the exact prevalence of such cysts in people with lupus is unknown, and more research is needed.

What Causes Ganglion Cysts?

Doctors aren’t sure what causes ganglion cysts. Health experts believe they develop when synovial fluid leaks out or bulges from nearby joints or tendons.

Ganglion cysts might show up or grow larger due to overuse of a joint or minor injuries to the area. Anyone can develop ganglion cysts, but according to Cleveland Clinic, they’re three times more common in men than in women and tend to appear between the ages of 20 and 50.

Some of the other risk factors for developing ganglion cysts may include injury to the joint or autoimmune conditions such as SLE or rheumatoid arthritis.

How Are Ganglion Cysts Diagnosed?

By combining the following methods, doctors can typically diagnose a ganglion cyst:

  • Physical examination — Before ordering any tests, your doctor will consider your health history and look at and feel the lump or swelling to see if it may be a ganglion cyst.
  • Transillumination — This technique involves shining a light through the cyst to assess whether it is filled with fluid. It helps the doctor confirm the diagnosis of a ganglion cyst.
  • Ultrasound — An ultrasound scan uses sound waves to create real-time images of the cyst and the surrounding tissues. It provides a detailed view and helps a doctor distinguish ganglion cysts from other types of lumps or tumors.
  • MRI — MRI uses a powerful magnetic field and radio waves to take detailed images of the cyst. This gives your doctor a better view of your cyst, allowing them to see its full size, shape, and location and how it’s affecting nearby body parts.
  • X-ray — Although ganglion cysts aren’t visible on X-rays, your doctor may use this imaging technique to rule out other conditions, such as fractures or arthritis.
  • Aspiration — An aspiration procedure involves using a needle to withdraw fluid from the cyst for further testing. This can help your doctor confirm the diagnosis and rule out other possible causes of the lump.

How Are Ganglion Cysts Treated?

About 58 percent of ganglion cysts will go away on their own over time. If your cyst is small, painless, and doesn't interfere with your ability to carry out daily activities, your doctor might suggest keeping an eye on it without doing anything. However, if your cyst is causing pain or interfering with your daily activities, your doctor may recommend treatment.

There are a few treatment options for ganglion cysts:

  • Immobilization — Wearing a brace or splint to keep nearby joints from moving may help relieve symptoms and shrink your cyst.
  • Anti-inflammatory medications — Medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may help treat the pain and swelling ganglion cysts cause.
  • Aspiration — Your doctor may use a needle and syringe to aspirate (drain) the fluid from the cyst. Usually performed in the doctor’s office, this procedure can provide temporary relief — but cysts often return after aspiration because they aren’t completely removed.
  • Surgical removal — This involves taking out the cyst completely. The surgery is usually done in a doctor’s office while you are awake with the affected area numbed. This treatment is usually the most effective, with low rates of recurrence (cysts coming back).
  • Physical therapy — After treating your ganglion cyst, you may need physical therapy to help bring your joint back to normal. A physical therapist can suggest ways to avoid overusing your joint so the cyst does not come back.

You may have heard stories of people popping ganglion cysts by hitting them with heavy objects, like a book. Health experts recommend against this approach, as it can lead to infections. It’s important to consult a rheumatology professional to get an accurate diagnosis and the right treatment for a ganglion cyst.

Your Doctor Is Your Best Resource

If you have a ganglion cyst and are worried that it is related to lupus, it’s best to talk with your rheumatologist or other health care professionals. They are your best resource for figuring out the root cause of your symptoms and developing a treatment plan to cope with them that won’t interfere with your existing lupus treatments.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On MyLupusTeam — the social network for people with lupus and their loved ones — more than 223,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lupus.

Have you had a ganglion cyst? What was your experience getting a diagnosis and having it treated? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

    Posted on July 14, 2023
    All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.

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    Maria Lolou, M.D., M.S. graduated from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, where she completed her medical school training. Learn more about her here
    Catherine Leasure, Ph.D. is a Ph.D. candidate currently studying at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Learn more about her here

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