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Pelvic Mass

By David H. Barad, MD, MS, Director of Assisted Reproductive Technology, Center for Human Reproduction

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A pelvic mass may be detected during routine gynecologic examination.


Pelvic masses may originate from gynecologic organs (cervix, uterus, uterine adnexa) or from other pelvic organs (intestine, bladder, ureters, skeletal muscle, bone).

Type of mass tends to vary by age group.

In infants, in utero maternal hormones may stimulate development of adnexal cysts during the first few months of life. This effect is rare.

At puberty, menstrual fluid may accumulate and form a vaginal mass (hematocolpos) because outflow is obstructed. The cause is usually an imperforate hymen; other causes include congenital malformations of the uterus, cervix, or vagina.

In women of reproductive age, the most common cause of symmetric uterine enlargement is pregnancy, which may be unsuspected. Another common cause is fibroids, which may extend outward. Common adnexal masses include graafian follicles (usually 5 to 8 cm) that develop normally but do not release an egg (called functional ovarian cysts). These cysts often resolve spontaneously within a few months. Adnexal masses may also result from ectopic pregnancy, ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, benign tumors (eg, benign cystic teratomas), or hydrosalpinges. Endometriosis can cause single or multiple masses anywhere in the pelvis, usually on the ovaries.

In postmenopausal women, masses are more likely to be cancerous. Many benign ovarian masses (eg, endometriomas, myomas) depend on ovarian hormone secretion and thus become less common after menopause.



General medical and complete gynecologic histories are obtained. Findings may suggest a cause:

  • Vaginal bleeding and pelvic pain: Ectopic pregnancy or, rarely, gestational trophoblastic disease

  • Dysmenorrhea: Endometriosis or uterine fibroids

  • In young girls, precocious puberty: A masculinizing or feminizing ovarian tumor

  • In women, virilization: A masculinizing ovarian tumor

  • Menometrorrhagia or postmenopausal bleeding: A feminizing ovarian tumor


During the general examination, the examiner should look for signs of nongynecologic (eg, GI, endocrine) disorders and for ascites. A complete gynecologic examination is done.

Distinguishing uterine from adnexal masses may be difficult. Endometriomas are usually adnexal masses. Advanced endometriosis can manifest as nonmobile cul-de-sac masses. Adnexal cancers, benign tumors (eg, benign cystic teratomas), and adnexal masses due to ectopic pregnancy are often mobile. Hydrosalpinges are usually fluctuant, tender, nonmobile, and sometimes bilateral.

In young girls, pelvic organ masses may be palpable in the abdomen because the pelvis is too small to contain a large mass.


If the presence or origin (gynecologic vs nongynecologic) of a mass cannot be determined clinically, an imaging test can usually do so. Usually, pelvic ultrasonography is done first. If it does not clearly delineate size, location, and consistency of the mass, another imaging test (eg, CT, MRI) may. Ovarian masses with radiographic characteristics of cancer (eg, a solid component, surface excrescences, irregular shape) require needle aspiration or biopsy. Tumor markers may help in the diagnosis of specific tumors.

Women of reproductive age are tested for pregnancy; if the test is positive, ultrasonography or other imaging is not always necessary unless ectopic pregnancy is suspected. In women of reproductive age, simple, thin-walled cystic adnexal masses that are 5 to 8 cm (usually graafian follicular cysts) do not require further investigation unless they persist for > 3 menstrual cycles or are accompanied by moderate to severe pain.

Key Points

  • Type of pelvic mass tends to vary by age group.

  • In women of reproductive age, the most common cause of symmetric uterine enlargement is pregnancy; other common causes of pelvic masses are fibroids and functional ovarian cysts.

  • In postmenopausal women, masses are more likely to be cancerous.

  • In women of reproductive age, do a pregnancy test.

  • If clinical evaluation is inconclusive, do an imaging test; usually, pelvic ultrasonography is done first.

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