The 411 on PCOS & women’s health

Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, affects more than 10 million women worldwide, including one in 10 women in the United States. How much do you know about this common condition?

PCOS is a hormonal disorder that occurs among women of reproductive age. While the exact cause of PCOS is unknown, the condition happens due to an imbalance of reproductive hormones.

This imbalance, in turn, can cause problems with a woman’s period and cause infertility. Let’s take a deeper look at the condition.

PCOS: The basics

Women who are affected by PCOS often have missed or prolonged periods and may also have excessive levels of androgen, known as the “male” hormone. Because of this, a woman’s ovaries may collect fluid and fail to release eggs as normal.

In affected women, eggs may not develop properly or simply may not be released during ovulation.

Researchers still aren’t certain what specifically causes PCOS and believe a combination of factors are at fault. These factors may include genetics, along with high levels of androgen and high levels of insulin.

PCOS: The symptoms

If a woman has polycystic ovary syndrome, she may experience a variety of symptoms that go beyond missed periods and infertility. These symptoms may include:

  • Pelvic pain
  • Hair loss on scalp
  • Unwanted hair growth (such as on the back, chest or abdomen)
  • Excessive fatigue and low energy
  • Unexplained weight gain or difficulty losing weight
  • Sleep problems
  • Acne
  • Mood changes
  • Headaches

Symptoms often first appear around the time a girl has her first period during puberty. However, PCOS may also emerge later in life if someone gains a substantial amount of weight.

Because symptoms are similar to those of other conditions, they may go undiagnosed for a long period of time.

PCOS: The diagnosis

If you believe you could have PCOS, your doctor can help provide a formal diagnosis. To do so, he or she will likely talk with you about your medical history, perform a physical and/or pelvic exam, perform bloodwork, and perform a pelvic ultrasound, in some cases.

After ruling out other conditions, your doctor may diagnose you with polycystic ovary syndrome if you exhibit any two of the following symptoms:

  • Irregular periods
  • Signs of high levels of androgen, like hair growth, acne and hair loss on scalp
  • Higher than normal levels of androgen in the blood
  • Cysts (fluid-filled pockets) on one or both ovaries

PCOS: The treatments

While there is no cure for PCOS, there are steps you can take to manage the condition and mitigate its symptoms.

If you’re diagnosed with the condition, your doctor will likely first recommend lifestyle changes. Because excessive weight is often a contributing factor to the condition, losing weight through a balanced diet and regular exercise is typically recommended. Losing even a small percentage of body weight can help reduce the symptoms.

Beyond lifestyle changes, your doctor may also prescribe oral or injected medications to either help regulate your menstrual cycle, help you ovulate or both. Different medications, including oral contraceptives, may be prescribed to help reduce unwanted hair growth.

If you’re looking to conceive, a doctor may recommend that you undergo fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization along with taking fertility medications.

Other things to know about PCOS

PCOS is more common among women who carry excessive weight and among those who have a mother or sister with the condition.

While the majority of polycystic ovary syndrome cases are diagnosed in women who are overweight or obese, though, PCOS can also occur in women who are of average weight or underweight. This type of the condition is sometimes referenced as “Lean PCOS.”

Regardless of weight, if you’re diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, it’s important to take steps to minimize the symptoms. That’s because those with PCOS are at an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Working with your doctor to limit symptoms, which can include excess blood sugar and high androgen levels, may help reduce your risk.

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of PCOS, talk with your doctor. He or she can conduct a thorough exam to uncover the underlying cause and provide treatment options. Find a doctor here.