Did you know? An estimated one in 10 American women of childbearing age—around 5 million women—have polycystic ovary syndrome, also known as PCOS.
While it’s a very common condition, it’s also relatively poorly understood. That’s why we’re taking some time today to break down what PCOS is and what you should know about it.
Read on as Donald Wilson, MD, gynecologist and women’s health specialist with West Tennessee Medical Group, shares some insight.
What Is PCOS?
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is a hormonal disorder that affects women who are of reproductive age. The exact cause is unknown, but the condition occurs when reproductive hormones get out of balance.
This can affect many aspects of a woman’s life, including her menstrual cycle, complexion, weight, and ability to have children.
Women who are affected by PCOS typically have high levels of androgen, which is sometimes called a “male” hormone. This hormone imbalance can cause the ovaries to collect fluid and not release eggs as part of the normal ovulation cycle.
Eggs may not develop properly, or they may simply not be released during ovulation. Both can cause difficulties conceiving for women who are trying to become pregnant.
What Types of Symptoms Does PCOS Cause?
While missed periods and infertility are two of the most common symptoms of PCOS, they aren’t the only ones. Women who have PCOS may experience:
- Acne, oily skin
- Cysts on the ovaries
- Excessive fatigue
- Increased hair growth on the face, chest, stomach, back, thumbs, or toes
- Low energy
- Male-pattern baldness or thinning hair
- Mood changes or difficulties sleeping
- Pelvic pain
- Weight gain or obesity
In many cases, the first symptoms of PCOS develop around the time a girl has her first period, during puberty. Later in life, PCOS can emerge when a woman gains a substantial amount of weight.
Does PCOS Affect Insulin?
Researchers also think insulin is linked to PCOS. Insulin is a hormone that controls the change of sugar, starches, and other food into energy for the body to use or store.
Many women with PCOS have too much insulin in their bodies because they have problems using it. Excess insulin appears to increase production of androgen.
How Is PCOS Diagnosed?
There is no single test to diagnose PCOS. If your doctor believes you may have polycystic ovary syndrome, he or she will talk with you about your medical history—including menstrual periods, weight changes, and symptoms.
After this discussion, your doctor will perform a thorough physical exam, including a pelvic exam to check the ovaries for enlargement or swelling due to an increased number of follicles.
Blood tests and additional testing such as pelvic ultrasound may also be ordered to confirm a diagnosis.
How Is PCOS Treated?
Because there is no cure for PCOS, it needs to be managed to prevent problems.
Treatment goals are based on your symptoms and whether you want to become pregnant. Treatment also has the goal of lowering your chances of getting heart disease and diabetes.
Treatment for PCOS may include:
- Lifestyle modification. You can help manage your PCOS by eating healthy and exercising to keep your weight at a healthy level. Even a 10 percent loss in body weight can restore a normal period and make your cycle more regular.
- Hormonal therapies. This may include birth control pills to control menstrual cycles, reduce male hormone levels, and help to clear acne.
- Diabetes medications. The medicine metformin, which is used to treat Type 2 diabetes, has also been found to help with PCOS symptoms. Metformin affects the way insulin controls blood glucose (sugar) and lowers testosterone production. It slows the growth of abnormal hair and, after a few months of use, may help ovulation to return. Recent research has shown metformin to have other positive effects, such as decreased weight and improved insulin and cholesterol levels.
- Anti-androgens. These medications may reduce hair growth and clear acne. Spironolactone, which was first used to treat high blood pressure, has been shown to reduce the impact of male hormones on hair growth in women.
It’s important to note that having PCOS does not mean you can’t get pregnant. If you’re looking to conceive, your doctor may recommend that you undergo fertility treatments. This may include treatment options ranging from fertility medications to surgical intervention such as ovarian drilling laparoscopy.
While “ovarian drilling” may sound complicated and painful, this type of laparoscopy is actually a simple, minimally invasive procedure. Your medical provider can help you determine what treatment options will work best for you.
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of PCOS, talk with your doctor. He or she can conduct a thorough exam to uncover the underlying cause and provide treatment options.
West Tennessee Medical Group GYN Specialists specializes in providing gynecological care. To schedule an appointment with Jeffrey Ball, MD, Donald Wilson, MD, or Amy White, NP, call (731) 660-3344.