Your reproductive hormones play a large role in maintaining your overall health, and different hormonal disorders can cause uncomfortable symptoms that affect your quality of life. Polycystic ovary syndrome is one of these disorders, and it’s the most common endocrine disease in young women.
Keep reading to find out more about polycystic ovary syndrome symptoms, signs, and causes.
What is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)?
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a disorder of the endocrine system that commonly affects women during their reproductive years. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, PCOS is a condition in which the ovaries produce excessive amounts of androgens, which are male sex hormones. Under normal conditions, women only produce very small amounts of androgens.
The disorder is called polycystic ovary syndrome because it typically causes numerous small cysts to form on the ovaries. However, not all women with PCOS have cystic ovarian disease.
Every menstrual cycle, women’s bodies produce hormones to help a follicle mature on the ovaries. Each follicle contains an egg, and one of them is released into the Fallopian tubes during ovulation, which is necessary for conception and pregnancy to occur. If the egg isn’t fertilized, it exits your body during menstruation.
But when a woman has PCOS, her hormone levels hinder this process, which is why many follicles try to develop at once, causing cysts. The resulting hormonal imbalance can lead to a range of signs and symptoms.
What causes PCOS?
The exact cause of PCOS isn’t fully understood. However, there are different factors that may play a role in the development of this disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, the risk factors associated with PCOS include:
- Insulin resistance: insulin is a hormone that’s produced by the pancreas, and it regulates your body’s glucose (blood sugar) metabolism. Blood sugar levels can become elevated if your body develops a resistance to insulin, and over time, this can lead to diabetes. If you become insulin resistant, your pancreas will usually start producing more insulin in an attempt to lower your blood sugar levels. Excessive insulin levels can also increase your androgen production, leading to a higher risk of PCOS.
- Chronic low-grade inflammation: PCOS patients have been found to have chronic low-grade inflammation. The causes of this inflammation are diverse, and it leads to cell and tissue injury over time.
- Genetic factors: although PCOS isn’t a hereditary disease, there is a strong genetic association in PCOS. Having a family history of PCOS could increase your predisposition to this disorder.
- Excess androgen production: excess androgens or male hormones prevent the ovaries from releasing an egg each month during ovulation. This results in menstrual cycle abnormalities, along with other common PCOS symptoms.
Symptoms of PCOS
According to the Cleveland Clinic, the signs of polycystic ovary syndrome can include:
- Irregular or absent periods
- Difficulty losing weight
- Excess facial and body hair (hirsutism)
- Thinning hair or balding
- Patches of dark skin
- Skin tags, often in the armpits and/or neck
- Fertility problems
- Ovarian cysts
There are some women who have PCOS but don’t show any distinguishable symptoms. Other women only have very mild symptoms and don’t realize they have the condition. However, these women could still have trouble conceiving a baby or develop long-term complications due to their underlying hormonal imbalances.
It’s very important to get regular checkups with your OBGYN and discuss any symptoms or health changes you experience.
How to diagnose PCOS blood test
Diagnosing polycystic ovarian syndrome can be somewhat difficult, since there isn’t a specific test that can confirm or rule out the disorder. Instead, physicians need to analyze a combination of findings and test results to determine whether you have PCOS or not.
According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, PCOS diagnosis can involve the following procedures:
- Asking for a full personal and family history. Your physician will likely ask about your symptoms, history of infertility, and whether someone else in your family has suffered from the same issues.
- Perform a complete physical examination. Your healthcare provider will look for PCOS signs such as excessive hair growth, acne, skin darkening, among others. They’ll also take your vital signs and calculate your body mass index.
- Order lab tests. Your doctor could take blood samples to run different tests, including hormone levels, blood sugar, and insulin.
- Do a pelvic ultrasound or exam. These examinations will allow your healthcare provider to determine whether you have ovarian cysts or other ovary abnormalities that could be linked to your symptoms.
How to prevent PCOS
Unfortunately, there isn’t a surefire way to prevent PCOS from developing, and there’s no cure for this condition. However, leading a healthy lifestyle can help significantly reduce your symptoms and prevent long-term complications stemming from PCOS.
Women who are overweight or obese can reduce their risk of complications, such as diabetes, through weight loss. According to the NHS, weight loss of just 5% of your body weight has been shown to significantly improve PCOS symptoms.
In some cases, large ovarian cysts may have to be surgically removed. However, most cysts resolve on their own within 1-3 months. Birth control pills may be prescribed to women with PCOS to induce regular periods and reduce certain risks.
And according to the PCOS Awareness Association, fertility treatments can be very effective for women with PCOS who want to get pregnant.
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Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) - hopkinsmedicine.org
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) - mayoclinic.org
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) - my.clevelandclinic.org
How do health care providers diagnose PCOS? - nichd.nih.gov
Polycystic ovary syndrome - nhs.uk