Understanding Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

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Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a disorder of the endocrine system that can strike women of child-bearing age. It affects about 6.8 million women in the U.S. and up to three times that many women show partial symptoms of the disorder.

PCOS is characterized by enlarged ovaries that contain small collections of fluid called follicles. The exact cause of the disorder is unknown, but some studies suggest it may be brought on if your body produces excessive amounts of insulin, or from chronic low-grade inflammation. It is likely that the disorder is hereditary, and some researchers are looking into the possibility that certain genes are linked to PCOS.

PCOS is a gateway to numerous other complications, which include:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Gestational diabetes or pregnancy-induced high blood pressure
  • Abnormal uterine bleeding
  • High blood pressure
  • Sleep apnea
  • Cholesterol and lipid abnormalities, such as elevated triglycerides or low HDL (“good”) cholesterol
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Severe inflammation of the liver
  • Infertility
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Endometrial cancer

See your doctor if you are experiencing either of these outward symptoms of PCOS:

  • Irregular periods, as characterized by menstrual intervals longer than 35 days; fewer than eight menstrual cycles a year; failure to menstruate for four months or longer; and prolonged periods that may be scant or heavy.
  • Excess androgen, as characterized by heavier than normal facial and body hair, adult acne or severe adolescent acne, and male-pattern baldness.

Your doctor will likely perform a pelvic exam, and follow up with a blood test. Depending upon the levels of certain hormones, cholesterol and triglycerides he finds in your blood, he may schedule you for an ultrasound scan. In this way can he gauge the appearance of your ovaries and the thickness of the lining of your uterus.

Once diagnosed, your doctor's only real option will be to treat your symptoms on an individual basis.

Your menstrual cycle can be regulated via the prescription of birth control pills that decrease androgen production and also lower your risk of endometrial cancer. Progesterone therapy is another option – it doesn't improve your androgen levels, but it will allow you to conceive, if that is your wish. Clomiphene may also be prescribed to assist you in ovulating. Metformin helps with ovulation, and also slows the progression to type 2 diabetes if you already have prediabetes and aids in weight loss.

Sources: The Mayo Clinic