Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder common among women of reproductive age. The exact cause of PCOS is unknown. Early diagnosis and treatment along with lifestyle changes may reduce the risk of long-term complications such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Symptoms of PCOS
Signs and symptoms of PCOS often develop around the time of the first menstrual period during puberty. Sometimes PCOS develops later, for example, in response to substantial weight gain.
Signs and symptoms of PCOS vary. A diagnosis of PCOS is made when you experience at least two of these signs:
- Irregular Periods – Infrequent, irregular or prolonged menstrual cycles are the most common sign of PCOS.
- Excess Androgens – Elevated levels of male hormone may result in physical signs, such as excess facial and body hair (hirsutism), and occasionally severe acne and male-pattern baldness.
- Polycystic Ovaries – Your ovaries might be enlarged and contain follicles that surround the eggs. As a result, the ovaries might fail to function regularly.
Causes for PCOS
As mentioned above, the exact cause of PCOS is unknown. Factors that might play a role include:
- Excess Insulin – Insulin is the hormone produced in the pancreas that allows cells to use glucose, your body’s primary energy supply. If your cells become resistant to the action of insulin, then your blood sugar levels can rise and your body might produce more insulin. Excess insulin might increase androgen production, causing difficulty with ovulation.
- Low-Grade Inflammation – This term is used to describe white blood cells’ production of substances to fight infection. Research has shown that women with PCOS have a type of low-grade inflammation that stimulates polycystic ovaries to produce androgens, which can lead to heart and blood vessel problems.
- Excess Androgens – The ovaries produce abnormally high levels of androgen, resulting in hirsutism and acne.
- Heredity – Research suggests that certain genes might be linked to PCOS.
Complications of PCOS
- Miscarriage or premature birth
- Gestational diabetes or pregnancy-induced high blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes or prediabetes
- Depression and anxiety
- Eating disorders
- Sleep apnea
- Abnormal uterine bleeding
- Cancer of the uterine lining (endometrial cancer)
- Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis – a severe liver inflammation caused by fat accumulation in the liver
- Metabolic syndrome – a cluster of conditions including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels that significantly increase your risk of cardiovascular disease
Remember, PCOS signs and symptoms are typically more severe if you’re obese. Obesity is associated with PCOS and can worsen complications of the disorder.
How PCOS is Diagnosed
There’s no test to definitively diagnose PCOS. Your doctor is likely to start with a discussion of your medical history, including your menstrual periods and weight changes. A physical exam will include checking for signs of excess hair growth, insulin resistance, and acne. You will also have a pelvic exam so that your doctor can inspect your reproductive organs for masses, growths or other abnormalities.
Another step is to complete blood work. Your blood may be analyzed to measure hormone levels. This testing can exclude possible causes of menstrual abnormalities or androgen excess that mimics PCOS. You might have additional blood testing to measure glucose tolerance and fasting cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
You will also have an ultrasound so that your doctor can check the appearance of your ovaries and the thickness of the lining of your uterus.
If you have a diagnosis of PCOS, your doctor might recommend additional tests for complications. Those tests can include:
- Periodic checks of blood pressure, glucose tolerance, and cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
- Screening for depression and anxiety.
- Screening for obstructive sleep apnea.
How is PCOS Treated
PCOS treatment focuses on managing your individual concerns, such as infertility, hirsutism, acne or obesity. Specific treatment might involve lifestyle changes or medication.
Regular exercise and weight loss will improve your symptoms dramatically.
Women with PCOS may have infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods or excess male hormone (androgen) levels. The ovaries may develop numerous small collections of fluid (follicles) and fail to regularly release eggs. Simple lifestyle changes can improve your symptoms of PCOS like a healthy diet, managing your weight and regular exercise. If you suspect that you may have PCOS please consult with your doctor.