Popliteal cysts in adults: a review

Semin Arthritis Rheum. 2001 Oct;31(2):108-18. doi: 10.1053/sarh.2001.27659.


Objective: To review the epidemiology, clinical presentation, pathogenesis, imaging, differential diagnosis, complications, and treatment of popliteal cysts.

Methods: References were taken from MEDLINE from 1985 to 1998 under the subject "Popliteal Cyst" with subheadings of Radiography, Ultrasonography, and Radionuclide Imaging. Other pertinent references were used. Childhood cysts were excluded.

Results: Depending on the studied population and the imaging technique, 5% to 32% of knee problems may have these cysts, with 2 age-incidence peaks of 4 to 7 years and 35 to 70 years. In older patients there is usually coexistent joint pathology. Symptoms may arise in the popliteal fossa from the cyst itself or be dominated by knee pain from coexisting knee pathology. Many cysts are asymptomatic. Physical examination will miss one half of these cysts. Pathogenesis depends on the connection between the joint and bursa, with a valvelike effect allowing passage of fluid from the joint into the bursa with subsequent distention producing these cysts. Some bursae have no such joint-bursal communication, and the cysts arise primarily as bursitis of the gastrocnemio-semimembranosus bursa. Imaging is performed by plain x-ray, ultrasound, arthrography, computerized axial tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, or nuclear scan; sonography is the method of choice. Complicated cysts with extension or rupture into the calf mimic phlebitis, an important differential diagnosis. Asymptomatic cysts found incidentally need no treatment; most symptomatic cysts respond to intra-articular corticosteroid injections. Surgical excision is rarely necessary.

Conclusions and relevance: Popliteal cysts are fairly common, may not be found on physical examination, require imaging (preferably sonography) to be identified, mimic phlebitis when extending into the calf, and often respond to intra-articular steroid or, rarely, surgical resection.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Glucocorticoids / administration & dosage
  • Glucocorticoids / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Injections, Intra-Articular
  • Knee Joint / diagnostic imaging
  • Knee Joint / pathology
  • Middle Aged
  • Phlebitis / diagnosis
  • Popliteal Cyst* / complications
  • Popliteal Cyst* / diagnosis
  • Popliteal Cyst* / epidemiology
  • Popliteal Cyst* / etiology
  • Popliteal Cyst* / therapy
  • Ultrasonography


  • Glucocorticoids