What are synovial cysts?

Synovial Cyst: Symptoms and Treatment
Synovial cysts are small, fluid-filled lumps that tend to
form on the lower spine. These cysts are not cancerous and often do not cause
any symptoms. However, they can sometimes lead to problems such as sciatica.
Treatment options for synovial cysts include taking pain
medication and seeking physical therapy. If a cyst is causing severe pain or
other debilitating symptoms, a doctor may recommend surgery.
It is important to note that synovial cysts are not the same
as ganglion cysts. Ganglion cysts mostly develop near joints and tendons in
other parts of the body, not on the spine.
In this article, we discuss what synovial cysts are, as well
as their symptoms and causes. We also explore when to see a doctor, diagnosis,
and treatment.
What is a synovial cyst?
A synovial cyst is fluid-filled sac that most often develops
on the lower spine. These cysts are benign, which means that they are not
cancerous. Synovial cysts can develop without causing any symptoms.
The synovium is a thin membrane that lines the inner
surfaces of joints. This membrane produces synovial fluid, which helps
lubricate and protect joints from wear and tear. This fluid can sometimes build
up within the membrane to form a synovial cyst.
Synovial cysts can develop around any joint in the body.
However, more than 90 percent of synovial cysts affect the facet joints of the
lumbar spine. The lumbar spine is the lower portion of the back, where the
spine curves inward.
Ganglion cysts are fluid-filled lumps that can develop
around joints and tendons in any part of the body, particularly the hand and
Although ganglion cysts are very similar to synovial cysts,
they are slightly different. One key difference is that ganglion cysts do not
contain a lining of synovium cells.

Symptoms depend on the size and location of the cyst. Many
people with synovial cysts do not experience any symptoms or discomfort.
However, symptoms of a synovial cyst on the spine may
  • pain or discomfort in the lower back
  • difficulty walking or standing
  • pain, numbness, or tingling in the legs, such as sciatica


Doctors do not fully understand why synovial cysts develop.
Facet joints sit between each of the spine’s vertebrae and
allow it to bend and twist. Synovial cysts develop on the spine when the facet
joints degenerate and produce excess synovial fluid.
Synovial cysts are more common in older adults and people
with joint conditions such as arthritis. In these people, the facet joints may
degenerate at a faster rate, producing synovial cysts.
When to see a doctor

Synovial cysts that do not cause symptoms do not usually
require treatment, and a person may not even realize that they have one.
However, people with symptoms that may indicate a synovial
cyst, such as recurrent lower back pain and sciatica, should see a doctor.
There are treatments available that can help reduce the
symptoms of synovial cyst.

Doctors will often begin by asking about a person’s symptoms
and reviewing their medical history. They may then carry out a physical
examination of the back and spine.
If the doctor finds a lump along the person’s spine, they
may perform an ultrasound to determine whether it is a synovial cyst.
Other imaging tests a doctor may recommend to help confirm a
diagnosis include an MRI scan, a CT scan, or an X-ray. These imaging tests can
also help rule out other possible conditions.

Treatment generally depends on the size of the cysts and
severity of the symptoms.
Synovial cysts are generally harmless, so treatment is often
unnecessary. However, some people may experience pain, difficulty walking, or
problems such as sciatica.
For mild symptoms, a doctor may suggest a period of rest and
observation. Physical or occupational therapy may also be an option for some
A doctor may also recommend taking over-the-counter or
prescription medications to help reduce pain and inflammation. This may include
the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen.
For more severe symptoms, a doctor may recommend steroid
injections, which can help relieve pain and pressure from the cyst.
However, steroid injections can also cause serious side
effects, so a doctor will typically limit the number of these a person receives.
If more conservative treatment options are unsuccessful in
relieving a person’s symptoms, a doctor may recommend surgery.
The aim of the surgery is to remove the cyst and reduce
pressure on the spinal cord and surrounding nerves. There are several surgical
options available for treating synovial cysts.
Synovial cysts are small, fluid-filled lumps that can form
around joints. They usually develop on the facet joints of the lumbar spine and
are generally harmless.
Because synovial cysts often do not cause any symptoms, a
person may not be aware that they have a cyst. However, the cysts can sometimes
put pressure on the spine and surrounding nerves, which can lead to pain and
other problems.
People who have unexplained back or leg pain, difficulty
walking, or sciatica should see a doctor for an evaluation.
Treatment options for synovial cysts include resting,
seeking physical and occupation therapy, and taking pain medications.
For people with more severe symptoms, a doctor may recommend
steroid injections or surgical removal of the cyst.

Written by Aaron Kandola  

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.