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What is polycystic ovarian syndrome?
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder affecting women, in which the ovaries produce an overabundance of male hormones like testosterone.
Sometimes, PCOS causes cysts on the ovaries, but not always – there are many different symptoms.
The most common cause is insulin resistance, and this cause is treatable with lifestyle changes and medications.
PCOS – or Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, as it’s also known – affects up to 1 in 5 Australian women, yet many of these cases remain undiagnosed as the symptoms mimic other conditions. Younger women are more likely to have polycystic ovaries.
You can have polycystic ovaries – that is, ovarian cysts – without having PCOS. The difference lies in whether your ovaries overproduce male hormones like testosterone.
While genetics plays a large role in determining whether you are likely to develop PCOS, it’s also more likely to occur in overweight women – so controlling your weight can help to prevent its onset.
If you have PCOS, it’s important to monitor and treat your condition. There is a risk of developing long-term health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems or cancer.
It is a long-term condition which may require treatment and medication until – or beyond – menopause.
Symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
There are many different symptoms associated with PCOS, and their commonality with other diseases can make it difficult to diagnose. It is rare that two women will share the same symptoms.
The symptoms of PCOS may include:
- Irregular menstruation
- Amenorrhoea (you have no periods)
- Excessive hair growth on your face, chest, etc.
- Hair loss on your scalp
- Reduced fertility
- Mood swings
Causes of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
The cause of PCOS is thought to be an inability to process insulin effectively. When the insulin levels in your blood are too high, your ovaries react by producing more testosterone – which then leads to some or all of the symptoms listed above.
Diagnosis and treatment of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
Given the range of symptoms and similarity with other conditions, it can be difficult for doctors to diagnose PCOS. Often, the different symptoms are treated separately – for example, a weight problem or irregular periods – until it becomes clear that you have the syndrome.
There is not a single test to diagnose the syndrome, although blood tests to measure hormone levels and ultrasounds to look for ovarian cysts will help to confirm a suspected diagnosis.
Once diagnosed, your doctor may prescribe medications and hormones to reduce the risk of developing diabetes and other serious conditions. These may include the oral contraceptive pill, hormone ‘blockers’ and infertility medications.
As well as medications, it is important to make lifestyle changes – particularly if you are overweight. Exercising regularly and eating well will help. Even a small drop in your bodyweight will significantly help to reduce your insulin resistance.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and pregnancy: the menstrual cycle and fertility
PCOS affects the menstrual cycle – and thus fertility – because the ovaries don’t make all of the female hormones needed to mature an egg. While the follicles in your ovaries may start to grow and build up fluid, ovulation doesn’t occur and the follicles remain as cysts on your ovaries instead.
And, without ovulation, no progesterone is produced and your menstrual cycle becomes irregular or absent.
There are medications available to stimulate ovulation and help women with PCOS to become pregnant. IVF is another option available.
Further information and sources
This article is of a general nature only. You should always seek medical advice if you think you may have the symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.
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