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Ask Dr. Anderson: Can a Ganglion Cyst Be Dangerous?

Learn about the symptoms that distinguish a ganglion cyst from a foot cancer.

When a painful bump appears on your toe joint or the bottom of your foot, it can be unsettling. However, more often than not, what you are experiencing is a ganglion cyst. Foot and ankle specialist Dr. Michael Anderson explains how these uncomfortable cysts develop and discusses treatment options.

What is a ganglion cyst?

“These cysts are small benign pouches of fluid that form around a joint or tendon sheath,” says Dr. Anderson. “They form when a hole or tear develops in the joint capsule or the sheath, allowing joint fluid to escape. The hole becomes a one-way valve for escaping fluid. As the fluid continues to escape, your body walls the fluid off and encapsulates it. They tend to develop slowly over time. If the cyst is small, you may not even notice it. However, in some cases, the cyst gets large enough to become painful. It may rub inside the shoe or limit the types of shoes you can wear. That pain is usually what triggers someone to come in and have the cyst evaluated.”

How do you distinguish cysts from foot cancer?

Whenever a mass appears on the body, it’s understandable that people are concerned about cancer. Dr. Anderson is quick to offer reassurance. “Soft tissue cancer in the foot and ankle is very rare,” he says. “I’ve seen only one case of soft tissue foot cancer so far in my medical career. If you discover a lump, it’s always good to get it checked out. But the chances that a bump on your foot is cancer are very low.” Dr. Anderson reviews several factors that distinguish foot cancer from a ganglion cyst.

Risk factors for ganglion cysts

There are a number of factors that increase the risk of developing these cysts.

“Unfortunately, none of these factors are particularly modifiable,” notes Dr. Anderson. If you have any of these conditions and then find a bump, it’s likely that it will be a cyst. These risk factors correlate with the likelihood that a cyst will occur.”

Diagnosing ganglion cysts

Imaging is not always necessary to diagnose these cysts. “Usually,” says Dr. Anderson, “I can identify a cyst based on an exam and the patient’s medical history. However, in cases where the mass is particularly painful, shows up in an atypical area, or is growing quickly, we definitely need advanced imaging. Also, if we are considering surgery, advanced imaging is helpful for presurgical planning. Finally, there are patients who request an MRI for reassurance. If it makes someone feel better to evaluate the cyst with an MRI, I’m happy to do that for them.”

Treatment options for a ganglion cyst

“There are three options for people with these cysts,” says Dr. Anderson.

Summit Orthopedics offers personalized foot and ankle expertise

Our fellowship-trained foot and ankle physicians understand that your mobility depends on the health of your feet and ankles. If you have suffered an injury or are experiencing symptoms that make walking painful, our team of foot and ankle specialists can help with conservative treatment; proven, evidence-based surgical options; and expert rehabilitation support. Summit Orthopedics specialists have the expertise to evaluate your discomfort and develop a plan to quickly and safely get you back on your feet and on your way.

Start your journey to optimal foot health. Find your foot and ankle expert, request an appointment online, or call us at (651) 968–5201 to schedule a consultation.

Summit has convenient locations across the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, serving Minnesota and western Wisconsin. We have state-of-the-art centers for comprehensive orthopedic care in Eagan, MNPlymouth, MN, Vadnais Heights, MN, and Woodbury, MN, as well as additional community clinics throughout the metro and southern Minnesota.

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