What is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome?
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder that impacts multiple organ systems within the body. It can be diagnosed in all phases of life - in girls as young as 8-9 years of age up through post-menopause - and affects approximately 5-10% of females between the ages of 20 and 40.
Although PCOS is one of the leading causes of infertility, the reproductive aspects of the disorder are secondary.
Causes of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome:
The exact cause of PCOS is unknown, but genetics may play a part. Hormonal imbalances are usually present in those who have the syndrome. There is typically an overproduction of androgen and a lack of progesterone, both of which affect egg production and release in the ovaries.
Many women with PCOS show signs of insulin resistance, which is also a factor in the overproduction of androgen.
Symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome:
The symptoms of PCOA vary in type and severity from woman to woman, but some of the common symptoms include:
- Irregular or no menstrual periods (for women of reproductive age)
- Irregular ovulation
- Excess hair growth on the face and body
- Thinning scalp hair or male pattern hair loss
- Accumulation of unruptured follicles on the periphery of the ovaries (mislabeled as "cysts," often called polycystic ovaries)
- Small breast size or underdeveloped breasts (hypoplastic breasts)
- Deepening of the voice
- Enlarged clitoris
- Dark or thick skin markings and creases around the armpits, groin, neck, and breasts due to insulin sensitivity
- Obesity, weight gain (often centered around the waist), and/or inability to lose weight
- Oily skin and/or persistent acne
- Pain in the lower abdomen and pelvis
- Skin tags
Diagnosis of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome:
It can be difficult to obtain a diagnosis of PCOS as symptoms vary widely or may present themselves inconsistently. Methods of diagnosis may include one test or a combination any of the following:
- Physical exam
- Hormone screening
- Blood test
- Pelvic laparoscopy
Treatment of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome:
There is no known cure for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Instead, a variety of methods are used to manage symptoms. These may include:
- Diet changes (limiting amounts of sugars and starches) to aid in insulin sensitivity
- Weight loss
- Hormone therapy through use of birth control pills
- Medications to address insulin resistance, blood glucose levels, or fertility-related symptoms
- Ovarian surgery ("drilling"), which is a temporary treatment to assist with the release of eggs
Complications of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome:
Individuals with PCOS have an increased risk for the the following health problems:
- Gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and premature labor
- Diabetes or pre-diabetes
- Elevated cholesterol levels
- Elevated blood pressure
- Sleep apnea (breathing disruptions)
- Depression or Anxiety
- Uterine cancer
- Heart disease
- Kidney disease and/or kidney stones
- Milk production difficulties during breastfeeding (either too little or too much milk), which may or may not be related to how the breasts have developed
Additional PCOS Resources:
PCOSupport is a volunteer organization run by women with PCOS and their families. The webiste offers an online community and additional information to assist those who have been diagnosed with PCOS improve their quality of life.
PCOS Foundation is a non-profit organization spreading awareness about PCOS. PCOS Foundation provides educational and outreach resources for PCOS sufferers.
The InterNational Council on Infertility Information Dissemination (INCIID) is a nonprofit organization that helps individuals and couples explore their family-building options. INCIID offers information about how PCOS plays a role in infertility and other resources for individuals with PCOS.
Project PCOS provides information and resources about PCOS.