Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, or PCOS, is a disorder of the female endocrine system, the system of glands which produce hormones to regulate the body’s functions. In normal ovaries, eggs are developed and released by the follicles. The empty follicles then dissolve and are reabsorbed into the ovary.
Polycystic ovary syndrome causes high levels of androgens to be produced. This prevents the eggs to mature. The immature follicles cannot dissolve like normal and instead develop into small fluid-filled cysts, often referred to as “sac of pearls”. The high levels of androgens can also cause multiple symptoms.
Symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
Women with PCOS typically experience:
- Irregular and/or unpredictable periods – These can be absent or infrequent periods, or periods that occur too frequently
- Several small ovarian cysts
- Severe acne or acne that doesn’t respond to treatment
- Oily skin
- Acanthosis nigricans – abnormal patches of skin that appear dark and velvety
- Hirsutism – abnormal hair growth on the chest, face, upper thighs, and abdomen
- Male-pattern hair loss or baldness
- Obesity – affects about 8 out of 10 women with PCOS
If you’re experiencing these symptoms, please make an appointment with your OB-GYN. Keep notes of your symptoms and be sure to ask any questions. Your OB-GYN will make a diagnosis based on your symptoms, hormone levels, and/or the findings on ultrasound.
Health Risks of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
The precise causes of PCOS are unknown. However, we do know it is related to insulin resistance and increased levels of androgens (male hormones) in the bloodstream. These factors contribute to a woman’s risk of serious illness and complications relating to PCOS. Research shows that women with PCOS have an increased risk of developing:
- Type 2 diabetes mellitus
- Cholesterol problems
- Cardiovascular disease
- Metabolic syndrome
- Endometrial hyperplasia – a disease in which the endometrium grows too thick, which raises the risk of endometrial cancer.
Treatment for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
If you are diagnosed with PCOS, your OB-GYN will recommend a course of treatment based on your symptoms, your medical history, and your desire to become pregnant in the future. If you do wish to become pregnant, it’s important that your course of treatment restores your ability to ovulate. Some treatments may include:
Combined hormonal birth control pills
This is an oral treatment that delivers both estrogen and progestin to the body to regulate the menstrual cycle and reduce androgen levels. It can reduce menstrual irregularities and decrease unwanted body hair and acne. This treatment plan can work in the long-term for women who no longer wish to become pregnant.
Even a minor weight loss of 10 or 15 pounds can help regulate menstrual periods and insulin levels in women with PCOS. Some women even report an improvement in acne and unwanted hair growth.
These drugs are normally used to treat patients with diabetes, but they can help women with PCOS by facilitating the body’s response to insulin. They can also jumpstart ovulation by reducing levels of androgens. This helps put the menstrual cycle back on track.