Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (or “PCOS”) is a medical condition which you may not have heard about; but since it affects approximately 5-10% of women ages 12-45 (some estimates are even higher), chances are good that you know at least one person with this disorder. The name comes from a characteristic finding of ovaries with multiple small cysts along the outer rim (i.e., “polycystic”). Though up to 30% of women with PCOS will not have polycystic ovaries, the name stuck.
So, how do you know if you have it? In order to be diagnosed with PCOS, you need to have at least 2 of the following 3 symptoms:
- Polycystic ovaries – an ultrasound performed by your gynecologist can easily tell if these are present.
- Signs of excess androgens (male hormones like testosterone) – i.e., excess body hair, adult acne, or baldness.
- Lack of or decreased ovulation – this can lead to menstrual cycles which may be too frequent, prolonged, heavy, light, or infrequent (such as every 4 months).
Other signs and symptoms which may be associated with PCOS include: infertility (difficulty getting or staying pregnant), obesity (or trouble losing weight), and pre-diabetes (also called “insulin resistance”). PCOS can increase your risk of developing adult diabetes, and even endometrial cancer. There are other conditions which may mimic the signs of PCOS, some of which are even more serious, so assumptions should not be made without a thorough evaluation by your doctor.
Why does it happen? The easiest answer, and a blatant oversimplification, is that there is a “hormone imbalance” which causes the ovaries, and several other hormonally regulated systems, to malfunction. If that isn’t a satisfactory answer for you, bear in mind that there are literally books written about the potential mechanisms by which this disorder occurs. On top of that, there is still some controversy about what causes PCOS (translation: “we really don’t know”). A brief summary of some of the potential causes can be found here.
The good news is that, regardless of why it happens, PCOS is a very treatable condition. Treatments vary depending on your primary goal, and may include any combination of lifestyle changes, hormones, and/or non-hormonal medications. If the primary goal is pregnancy, your treatment will potentially be very different from someone whose main objective is to regulate her cycles.
For more information, or if you believe you may have PCOS, contact your gynecologist.