understanding polycystic ovary syndrome

What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder that leads to enlarged ovaries with small cysts on the outer edges. This condition is very common among women of reproductive age, with up to 5 million cases in the United States each year.

Symptoms of PCOS

Symptoms for this condition will usually begin right after a woman has her first period, which can sometimes be as young as 11 years old. In rare cases, polycystic ovary syndrome can develop later in life in response to a substantial weight gain. The most common symptoms for PCOS include:

  • Polycystic ovaries: Your ovaries are considered polycystic if they have become enlarged and contain numerous fluid-filled sacs that surround the eggs.
  • Irregular periods: This is the most common symptom of PCOS. It can include menstrual intervals that last longer than 35 days, less than eight menstrual cycles per year, failure to menstruate for over four months, and periods that are prolonged, scant or heavy.
  • Excess androgen: Androgens are a class of hormone that may become elevated with polycystic ovary syndrome. If this happens, it could result in physical signs that include excess facial and body hair, severe adolescent or adult acne, and hair loss. 

Polycystic ovary syndrome can sometimes also cause infertility, pelvic pain, anxiety, depression, and sleep apnea. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, speak to your doctor.

Causes of PCOS

Although the exact cause of PCOS is unknown, there are some potential contributing factors. These include:

  • Insulin resistance: If you have insulin resistance, this means your body’s ability to use insulin effectively is impaired, causing your pancreas to produce higher quantities. This affects the ovaries because it can increase androgen production and interfere with your ability to ovulate.
  • Low-grade inflammation: Inflammation occurs when your body’s white blood cells produce substances to fight infection. Most women with PCOS have low-grade inflammation, which stimulates the ovaries to produce more androgens, leading to polycystic ovary syndrome.
  • Heredity: Your risk for developing PCOS is higher if you have a mother or sister who has the condition. 

Treatments for PCOS

There is no cure for PCOS; however, it will need to be managed to prevent problems and complications. There are different treatment plans that vary depending on your symptoms, your desire to become pregnant, and your risk of developing heart disease or diabetes. Most treatment goals will include a combination of things, including:

  • Lifestyle modifications: This includes eating healthy and exercising to keep your weight at a healthy level to prevent other medical problems from occurring.
  • Birth control pills: If you are not trying to get pregnant, oral contraceptives can help control your menstrual cycle, reduce androgens, and help to clear up PCOS-related acne.
  • Diabetes medications: Some medications that are used to treat diabetes can also help manage the symptoms of PCOS.
  • Fertility medications: Since lack of ovulation is usually the reason PCOS causes fertility problems, there are medications you can take that will stimulate ovulation.
  • Surgery: If a woman does not respond to fertility medications, there are surgical procedures available that can also increase the chance of ovulation and pregnancy.
  • Anti-androgen medications: If you are experiencing excess hair growth and acne, these medications can help reduce symptoms. 
Last Updated: August 27, 2015