Polycystic Ovary Syndrome – PCOS

PCOS at a glance

  • PCOS – also called Stein-Leventhal syndrome is a common endocrine disorder that causes a woman’s eggs to fail to mature and grow normally, causing cysts to form within the ovaries.
  • PCOS symptoms can include irregular or lack of periods, weight gain, irregular hair growth, hair loss, acne, and infertility.
  • There is no cure for PCOS but it can be treated to manage symptoms, and infertility treatments can help to produce a pregnancy.

What is PCOS?

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common endocrine disorder that affects about five percent of women of reproductive age, starting as early as a woman’s teenage years. It causes infertility and other serious health repercussions later in life.

PCOS causes a woman’s eggs to fail to mature and grow normally. When that happens, the follicles stop growing and form cysts within the ovaries. Over the years, those cysts build up and fail to release eggs. They cause the overproduction of male hormones like testosterone, which in turn can cause acne and abnormal hair growth. Woman with PCOS have low success with regular ovulation and pregnancy.

Symptoms of PCOS

Women with PCOS may experience symptoms as early as their teenage years, including:

  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Lack of periods for 2 to 12 months
  • Weight gain or difficulty losing weight
  • Hair growth on the face, back, or chest (hirsutism)
  • Obesity
  • Irregular or absent menstrual periods
  • Infertility
  • Acne
  • Male pattern baldness or thinning hair on the scalp
  • Dark pigmentation in the armpits and back of the neck.

Later life repercussions of PCOS may include heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, or even endometrial or uterine cancer. PCOS has also been called Stein-Leventhal syndrome.

Treating PCOS

Unfortunately, there is no cure for polycystic ovary syndrome. But PCOS symptoms – including infertility – can be treated. Weight reduction improves the frequency of ovulation, improves fertility, lowers the risk of diabetes, and lowers male hormone levels in many women with PCOS. In the long term PCOS can lead to metabolic syndrome, which causes obesity and high insulin levels, so treatment must also focus on reduction of the risk of diabetes and also heart disease, which can result from diabetes. Changing or adapting nutritional and exercise habits is critical. In overweight women, another key is the reduction of insulin levels with medications.

Patients must learn to manage other symptoms of PCOS. Irritating symptoms like acne, hirsutism, hair loss, and acne often respond to metformin. If PCOS is being treated for reasons other than infertility, other medication can be used more liberally. Laser hair removal and plucking may be necessary for cosmetic reasons.

Treating infertility from PCOS

The first steps in any infertility treatment will be an examination of the woman’s reproductive system and fertility testing.

Overweight women will be advised to begin a healthy weight-loss program before or during infertility treatment. Studies have shown that some women experience spontaneous return of their ovulation and regulation of their cycles by simply losing weight through healthy eating and exercise, and once pregnancy is achieved, a healthy diet can help maintain normal weight. If that does not work, ovulation-inducing fertility medications may be used. Once ovulation is achieved, a woman with PCOS may then begin with either intrauterine insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilization (IVF).

Can PCOS be prevented?

Physicians have not yet found a way to determine which girls may develop PCOS after the beginning of menstruation. The earlier a young woman is diagnosed and begins managing PCOS, the less likely the long-term complications of infertility, heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. For women who are not trying to conceive, hormone therapy through birth control pills or other hormonal contraceptives can be helpful. And all PCOS sufferers, regardless of desire to conceive, benefit from a healthy lifestyle of regular exercise and good nutrition.

Suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome can cause emotional distress for a woman. The outward symptoms of skipping periods, hair growth, hair loss, and weight gain attack a woman’s self-image, not to mention her concerns of having children. A woman should consult a physician as soon as suspicions of PCOS through the symptoms listed above become apparent.