Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a common health problem caused by an imbalance of reproductive hormones. The hormonal imbalance creates problems in the ovaries. The ovaries make egg that are released each month. With PCOS, eggs may not develop or may not be released during ovulation. Five to ten percent of reproductive aged women have PCOS. Most often, women find out they have PCOS in their 20’s and 30’s when they have problems getting pregnant – but PCOS can happen at any age after puberty. Women of all races and ethnicities are at risk for PCOS. Your risk for PCOS may be higher if you are obese or if you have a mother, sister, or aunt with PCOS.
Conditions Associated With PCOS
- Diabetes. More than half of women with PCOS will have diabetes or pre-diabetes before age 40.
- High blood pressure. Women with PCOS are at greater risk of having high blood pressure compared to women without PCOS. High blood pressure is a leading cause of heart disease and stroke.
- Unhealthy cholesterol. Women with PCOS often have higher levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and low levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. High cholesterol raises your risk for heart disease and stroke.
- Sleep apnea – momentary and repeated interuptions in breathing that disrupt sleep. Many women with PCOS are overweight or obese, which can cause sleep apnea. Sleep apnea raises your risk for heart disease and diabetes.
- Depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety are common among women with PCOS.
- Endometrial cancer. Problems with ovulation, obesity, insulin resistance, and diabetes (all common in women with PCOS) increase the risk of developing cancer of the endometrium (lining of the uterus).
Symptoms of PCOS?
PCOS has many signs and symptoms, some of which may not seem to be related:
- Menstrual irregularities:
- No menstrual periods—called amenorrhea
- Frequently missed periods—called oligomenorrhea
- Heavy periods
- Bleeding but no ovulation—called anovulatory periods
- Pelvic pain
- Excess hair growth on the face, chest, stomach, or thighs—called hirsutism
- Severe, late-onset, or persistent acne that does not respond well to usual treatments
- Obesity, weight gain, or trouble losing weight, especially around the waist
- Oily skin
- Patches of thickened, dark, velvety skin—a condition called acanthosis nigricans
Because many women don’t consider problems such as oily skin, extra hair growth, or acne to be symptoms of a serious health condition, they may not mention these things to their doctor. As a result, many women aren’t diagnosed with PCOS until they have trouble getting pregnant or if they have abnormal periods or missed periods.
Although PCOS is a leading cause of infertility, many women with PCOS can and do get pregnant. Pregnant women who have PCOS, however, are at higher risk for certain problems, such as miscarriage.
Causes of PCOS?
The exact cause of PCOS is unknown. Most experts think that several factors, including genetics, play a role:
- High levels of androgens. Androgens are sometimes called ‘male hormones’, although all women make small amounts of androgens. Androgens control the development of male traits, such as male-pattern baldness. Women with PCOS have more androgens than normal. Estrogens are also called ‘female hormones’. Higher than normal androgen levels in women can prevent the ovaries from releasing eggs (ovulation) and can cause extra hair growth and acne, two signs of PCOS.
- High levels of insulin. Insulin is a hormone that controls how the food you eat is changed into energy. Insulin resistance is when the body’s cells do not respond normally to insulin. As a result, your insulin blood levels become higher than normal. Many women with PCOS have insulin resistance, especially those who are overweight or obese, have unhealthy eating habits, do not get enough physical activity, and have a family history of diabetes (usually type 2 diabetes). Over time, insulin resistance can lead to type 2 diabetes.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is the leading cause of infertility in reproductive age women. Lack of ovulation is generally assumed to be the cause after other anatomic, hormonal, and male factor causes are ruled out.
Because there is currently no universal definition of PCOS, different expert groups use different criteria to diagnose the condition. All the groups look for the following three features:
- Menstrual irregularities, such as light periods or skipped periods, that result from long-term absence of ovulation (the process that releases a mature egg from the ovary).
- High levels of androgens that do not result from other causes or conditions, or signs of high androgens, such as excess body or facial hair.
- Multiple cysts of a specific size on one or both of the ovaries as detected by ultrasound.
Having one or more of these features could lead to a diagnosis of PCOS. If your medical history suggests that you might have PCOS, we will rule out other conditions that may cause similar symptoms.
Some of these conditions include:
- Excess hormone production by the adrenal glands, called adrenal hyperplasia
- Problems with the function of the thyroid gland
- Excess production of the hormone prolactin by the pituitary gland, called hyperprolactinemia
After ruling out other conditions and before making a diagnosis of PCOS, we will also:
- Take a full personal and family history because PCOS tends to run in families.
- Conduct a complete physical exam. We will look for extra hair growth, acne, and other signs of high levels of the hormone androgen. We will take your blood pressure, measure your waist, and calculate your body mass index, a measure of your body fat based on your height and weight.
- Take blood samples. Blood tests will include levels of androgens, cholesterol, and sugar in your blood.
- Do a pelvic exam or ultrasound to check your ovaries.
Treatment For PCOS
- Losing weight. Changing your lifestyle like having fewer sugary drinks and hog-calorie desserts to help control your weight, exercising each day and avoiding smoking. These healthy eating habits and regular physical activity can help relieve PCOS-related symptoms. Losing weight may help to lower your blood glucose levels, improve the way your body uses insulin, and help your hormones reach normal levels. Even a 10% loss in body weight (for example, a 150-pound woman losing 15 pounds) can help make your menstrual cycle more regular and improve your chances of getting pregnant. Consider counseling with a registered dietitian to help you choose healthy foods and lose weight if you are overweight or obese.
- Removing unwanted facial/body hair. You can try facial hair removal creams, laser hair removal, waxing, or electrolysis to remove excess hair. You can find hair removal creams and products at drugstores. Procedures like laser hair removal or electrolysis must be done by a doctor and may not be covered by health insurance.
- Slowing hair growth. A prescription skin treatment (eflornithine HCl cream) can help slow down the growth rate of new hair in unwanted places.
- Medications. Medicines that contain estrogen and progesterone such as birth control pills, a vaginal ring, or a skin patch; medicines to help your body use insulin better, such as Metformin (for pre-diabetes or diabetes); and/or acne medicine.
Coping With PCOS
Seeing a doctor who knows about PCOS is the first step. Choose a doctor who specializes in hormone problems or a doctor who specializes in women’s health. Remember that the sooner you get help for your PCOS, the sooner you could lower your risk for related health problems such as diabetes. Your doctor can help you find ways to feel better about your appearance. For example, you can ask your doctor about the best way to remove unwanted facial hair. If you feel worried or depressed, ask your parents or your doctor where to go for counseling. You can also go to a support group to talk with others who have PCOS.