Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition in which there is an imbalance in a woman's female sex hormones. It is common in women of reproductive age affecting as many as five million women in the United States. It can occur in girls as young as 11 years old.
The condition’s name comes from the appearance of the ovaries in most, but not all, women with PCOS. They are enlarged and contain numerous small cysts located along the outer edge of the ovary.
PCOS was first recognized in the 1930s, but doctors aren’t exactly sure what causes it. Research suggests that women with PCOS may produce too much insulin, which signals their ovaries to release extra male hormones (androgens). In women with PCOS, their ovaries make more androgens than normal.
Symptoms vary in both type and severity. To be diagnosed with PCOS, your doctor looks for at least two of the following: menstrual abnormality, high levels of male hormones (which may result in excess facial and body hair, acne and male-pattern baldness), and polycystic ovaries. Despite the name, polycystic ovaries alone don’t confirm the diagnosis.
Other conditions associated with PCOS include infertility, obesity, type-2 diabetes and a skin condition causing darkened, velvety skin on the nape of the neck, armpits, inner thighs, vulva or under the breasts.
There is no single test to diagnose PCOS. But being properly diagnosed is critical as getting treatment for PCOS reduces one’s chances of serious side effects. Long-term complications include heart disease and stroke. Doctors take several steps to determine if it is PCOS or something else. These include: taking medical histories and conducting physical and pelvic exams. He or she will also perform blood tests to check the androgen hormone and glucose levels and/or a vaginal ultrasound to examine ovaries for cysts and check the endometrium. This lining may be thicker if periods aren’t regular.
Although there's no cure for PCOS, there are several ways the condition can be treated and managed. Doctors typically recommend patients adjust their lifestyle habits if obesity is a problem. Obesity makes insulin resistance worse. Weight loss can reduce both insulin and androgen levels, and may restore ovulation.
Sometimes doctors prescribe medications to treat PCOS to help reduce androgen levels and regulate menstrual cycles. These may include birth control pills or progesterone. These medicines may also help control acne and excessive hair growth. Some doctors may prescribe medication for type 2 diabetes in order to lower insulin levels.
Stacy Lloyd is a writer and video producer. A former television news journalist, she covered stories around the world. Currently, she produces corporate and non-profit videos and broadcast programming.