Polycystic ovary syndrome is an incredibly common but highly misdiagnosed condition that affects a woman's female sex hormones. It is estimated that about 10 percent of women, and five percent of women who are of a childbearing age suffer from PCOS. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, as many as five million women in the United States could be affected, and it can occur in girls as young as 11 years old. Polycystic ovary syndrome causes an imbalance in the sex hormones that can result in a variety of symptoms, including changes in the menstrual cycle, ovarian cysts, and difficulty getting pregnant. If you are concerned that you may be suffering from PCOS, keep reading to learn more.
Causes of PCOS: Unfortunately, the primary causes of polycystic ovary syndrome are unknown. Many experts believe that PCOS can be chalked up to several factors, including genetics. Research has shown that women who are affected with this condition are more likely to have a mother or sister who also suffers from PCOS. As we mentioned, the main problem that most women experience is a hormonal imbalance, which is caused when the ovaries produce more androgens than normal. Androgens are more commonly known as male hormones that females also make (although in smaller quantities). Abnormally high levels of androgens can hinder the development and release of a woman's eggs during ovulation.
Another factor of PCOS in the production of insulin. Researchers believe that insulin, a hormone that regulates the transformation of sugar, starches, and other food into energy, appears at higher levels in the bodies of women who have PCOS. When there is an overabundance of insulin in the body, that excess insulin actually boosts the production of androgen. Symptoms of high levels of androgen include, but are not limited to:
PCOS is primarily diagnosed in women ages 20 to 30, but in some cases it can be found in girls who have just begun menstruating.
Symptoms of PCOS: The most notable symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome are largely related to changes in the menstrual cycle. Things to look out for include:
- Secondary amenorrhea, or not getting a period after you have had one or more normal ones during puberty
- Irregular periods that vary in duration and intensity
- Infertility, or the inability to get pregnant because of the cessation of ovulation
- Ovarian cysts
- Pelvic pain
- Weight gain or obesity, especially excess weight around the midriff
- Increased hair growth on the face, chest, stomach, back, thumbs, or toes
- Anxiety or depression
- Sleep apnea (via National Institutes of Health)
Diagnosing PCOS: There is no tried and true test to diagnose polycystic ovary syndrome, but your doctor may try a variety of options:
- Pelvic exam, in order to check to see if the ovaries are swollen
- Physical exam, to determine your blood pressure, BMI and waist size. If any of these have increased drastically, this could be a sign of PCOS
- Blood tests, to check for heightened androgen hormone levels, thyroid function, and glucose levels
- Vaginal ultrasound, to screen for ovarian cysts and a thicker than normal endometrium (or lining of the womb), which would signify irregular periods
Treatment for PCOS: While there is no cure for PCOS, there are a variety of ways to manage the symptoms and discomfort. A combination of the following methods is usually fairly successful in eliminating elements of PCOS:
- Adjust your lifestyle: Weight management is a huge factor in controlling your symptoms. Even losing a little bit of weight through healthy diet and exercise could go a long way in getting your discomfort under control.
- Switch to oral contraception: If you don't want any more children, taking the pill will help to regulate your cycles and get your periods back on track. They also reduce male hormones and eliminate acne outbreaks!
- Take diabetes medications: Your doctor may choose to give you a prescription for Glucophage, a medication used to treat Type 2 diabetes. It helps to manage blood glucose levels and lowers testosterone production.
- Take fertility medications: Since lack of ovulation is the main reason for fertility problems in women with PCOS, these medications that stimulate ovulation can help afflicted women become pregnant.
- Undergo surgery: When a woman does not respond to fertility meds, some doctors recommend "ovarian drilling" in order to increase the likelihood of ovulation. (via Office on Women's Health)
If you believe you may be suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome, we highly recommend contacting your doctor to learn more about what you can do. For more information, check out our sources: Office on Women's Health, National Institutes of Health, PCOS Foundation.