What you need to know about Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

Merely Me Health Guide
  • I was having dinner with two friends recently and they asked me what I did over the weekend.  When I told them I was writing about cysts one of my friends asked me cautiously, "You mean like ovarian cysts?"  I nodded and then both friends proceeded to tell me that they suffered from a condition called Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.  Of course I had no idea that this was an issue for them.  But then again most people don't talk about cysts over dinner.  But maybe they should.


    So I asked them what it was like to have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) where multiple cysts can grow on the ovaries each month and disrupt ovulation.  My younger friend who is now in her twenties talked about being diagnosed in her teens when her period was highly irregular.  She told me how she would not have a period for several months in a row but then when she did have a period it might last for several weeks with heavy bleeding.  She added that she might have only three to four periods in a whole year.  My other friend who is in her thirties described the same scenario and added that her gynecologist put her on birth control pills to help regulate her cycle. 

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    Both friends worry about their fertility and have moms who had trouble conceiving.  According to the literature (The New Harvard Guide to Women's Health by Carlson, M.D., et al.) one cause of PCOS may be genetic inheritance.  Another possible cause is insulin sensitivity.  PCOS is not uncommon.  It is said to occur in one out of ten premenopausal women.  Usually what happens as did with my two friends is that PCOS is diagnosed in the teen years when there are missed menstrual cycles.


    What are some of the warning signs that you may have PCOS?  The National Women's Health Information Center includes the following as potential symptoms of PCOS: 

    • Multiple cysts on your ovaries
    • Absent or irregular periods and irregular bleeding (this fits the description of what my friends had talked about of having no periods for months and then one long period lasting several weeks with a heavy flow.
    • Increased hair growth on face or body due to high levels of androgens (sometimes called male hormones).
    • Pelvic pain
    • Acne, oily skin, or dandruff
    • Thinning hair or even male pattern baldness
    • Weight gain, especially around the waist leading to obesity
    • Patches of dark skin around the neck, breasts, arms and thighs

    So if you are missing your period for several cycles in addition to irregular bleeding and increased facial and body hair, it may be time to see your doctor or gynecologist to seek a diagnosis. 



    How are you diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?


    It appears that there is not one single test to diagnose PCOS but rather a checklist of signs and symptoms.  Your doctor will conduct a thorough physical examination as well as ask you about your gynecological history.  They will probably do a blood test to check out your hormone levels and may also do an ultrasound to confirm the presence of cysts on your ovaries. 


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    Why you want to get this treated as soon as possible:


    I am afraid that this is not a condition that you can just let go without seeing a doctor. The earlier you get diagnosed and treated the more of a chance you will have to prevent other medical problems in the future.  There are many serious medical conditions which can accompany this syndrome especially if it goes unchecked. 


    What are some of these medical issues associated with PCOS?


    The Mayo Clinic tells us that one of the greatest problems associated with having PCOS is infertility.  The cysts prevent normal ovulation so fertility decreases dramatically.  Women who have PCOS will usually need treatment in order to be become pregnant.

    The other medical risks associated with having PCOS include:

    • Obesity. About half of women who have this syndrome will also be obese.
    • Type 2 Diabetes. Many women who have PCOS have a glucose intolerance problem. This can lead to having high blood sugar and the development of Type 2 Diabetes.
    • High blood pressure
    • Sleep apnea
    • Increased risk for cardiovascular disease
    • Increased risk for Endometrial Cancer
    • Problems with Cholesterol levels

    What is the treatment for PCOS?


    One of the main treatments for PCOS is to make lifestyle changes including diet and exercise.  Obesity greatly adds to the symptoms and risks for other medical problems including diabetes and heart disease.  Aside from advising you to eat a healthy diet and to exercise your doctor may also prescribe any of the following:

    • Birth Control Pills: Your doctor may prescribe birth control pills to help regulate your periods, reduce the symptoms of facial or body hair, and improve your acne. If you stop taking the pill, however, your irregular cycles will return.

    • Diabetes medications: There are some medications which are used by diabetics which may also help with the symptoms of PCOS. One of these drugs is called Metformin which goes under the brand name of "Glucophage." This medication, used to treat Type 2 Diabetes is not FDA approved for specifically treating PCOS but clinical trials have shown that this drug reduces the male hormone androgen, improves ovulation, and also reduces obesity associated with PCOS.

    • Anti-androgens. These medications will reduce the male hormones which may cause excess facial and body hair as well as acne. Some of these anti-androgen medications include: Spironolactone (Aldactone), Finasteride (Propecia), or Eflornithine (Vaniqa) the last of which is a cream to decrease the growth of facial hair in women.

    If you are a woman who has PCOS and wants to get pregnant it is important that you talk with your gynecologist about your options of treatment including fertility medications to induce ovulation. 


    There is information and support for those who have PCOS.  The Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome Association, Inc. (PCOSA) is one such resource.   


    Have you been diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome?  What symptoms led to your diagnosis?  How are you being treated for it?  Tell us your story.  It just may help someone else going through the same thing.

Published On: August 31, 2009