Although it’s not well known or understood, approximately one in ten women in the U.S. are affected by polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). With PCOS, an imbalance of reproductive hormones creates problems in the ovaries. Ovaries make the egg that is released as part of a monthly menstrual cycle. With PCOS, the egg may not develop as it should or it may not be released during ovulation. PCOS is one of the most common causes of female infertility.
When American gynecologists Irving Stein and Michael Leventhal first wrote about PCOS in 1935, the medical community thought it was a rare disorder. Now five to seven million women in the U.S. may be living with PCOS, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Health practitioners are continuing to discover the full impact of the disorder.
The Endocrine Society published a study in the March 2015 Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism that stated women diagnosed with PCOS double their risk to be hospitalized for reproductive disorders, heart disease, diabetes, mental-health conditions, and cancer of the uterine lining. The cost of evaluating and providing care to women with PCOS is over $4 billion per year.
No one knows the exact cause of PCOS, although it’s believed to be hereditary. Early diagnosis and treatment along with weight loss help reduce the risk of long-term complications.
PCOS has many symptoms, which can include infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods, hirsutism (excessive hair growth), acne, and weight gain. In teenage girls, infrequent or absent menstruation may be indicators for the condition. Of course, each woman may experience various symptoms and be affected differently.
Symptoms often start after a girl first begins having periods. In some cases, PCOS develops later during the reproductive years. To be diagnosed with the condition, your doctor looks for at least two of the following:
• Irregular periods.
• Polycystic ovaries.
• Excess androgen, which are male hormones.
If you’re diagnosed with PCOS, your doctor may recommend weight loss. Even a small reduction in weight might improve your condition as obesity exacerbates the symptoms.
Your doctor may also prescribe a medication to regulate your menstrual cycle, and may recommend birth control pills. During the time that you take this medication to relieve your symptoms, you won’t be able to conceive.
An alternative is to take progesterone for 10 to 14 days every one to two months. Progesterone therapy standardizes your periods and helps protect you from endometrial cancer; however, it doesn’t improve the amount of androgen and will not prevent pregnancy.
If you’re trying to become pregnant, you may need a medication to help you ovulate. When taking any type of medication to help you ovulate, it’s important that you work with your healthcare provider and have regular ultrasounds to track your progress.
Office of Women’s Health, Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/polycystic-ovary-syndrome.html