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PCOS What is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome?

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Updated July 17, 2009

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder that affects an estimated seven percent of all women. It is the most common hormonal disorder among women. According to experts, the actual number of women affected by PCOS may be as high as one out of ten simply because so many cases remain undiagnosed. Why are so many cases of polycystic ovarian syndrome undiagnosed? Because the symptoms can vary from woman to woman it is often difficult to accurately diagnose polycystic ovarian syndrome. Its symptoms are often heartbreaking both emotionally and physically.

Most women have never even heard of PCOS, yet it causes a wide variety of symptoms that often affect female reproductive health in ways that can be truly devastating. Although PCOS often affects the reproductive system, it's important to understand that it is an endocrine system disorder. Polycystic ovarian syndrome is often the cause significant long-term health consequences making a quick and accurate diagnosis, followed by proper treatment urgent.

PCOS is characterized by enlarged ovaries that contain numerous small and painless cysts. Symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome include:

If you have two or more of these symptoms you should see a physician, preferrably a reproductive endocrinologist.

Who gets polycystic ovarian syndrome - PCOS?

Is there a genetic connection in women who experience polycystic ovary syndrome? Although the susceptibility to PCOS is often inherited the exact cause is unknown. The symptoms of PCOS most often begin with the onset of menstruation, but can begin earlier with the preteen years or can develop at any time during a woman's childbearing years.

Polycystic ovary syndrome is less common among women as they get older and it's extremely uncommon in post-menopausal women. Unfortunately the consequences, such as diabetes and lipid abnormalities, of PCOS can last long after menopause.

It's a hormonal disorder... Exactly what are hormones?

Proteins or steroids secreted directly into the blood stream are called hormones. Many of your body's normal, everyday, functions are regulated by hormonal substances such as metabolism of minerals, regulation of fluids, your responses to stress, sexual function, reproduction, and pregnancy. Glands such as the pituitary, hypothalamus, thyroid, parathyroid, pancreas, adrenal cortex and medulla, and ovaries make up the endocrine system that produces hormones in women. When there are breakdowns or malfunctions in the hormonal process, your body is drastically affected.

How is PCOS diagnosed?

Many physicians diagnose polycystic ovary syndrome based on the symptoms listed above; however, confirmed diagnosis requires more than simply acknowledging the presence of these symptoms. Confirmation of polycystic ovarian syndrome requires blood testing for a variety of hormones. These hormones are produced by the ovaries, as well as the adrenal glands, pituitary gland, and thyroid gland. A complete evaluation for this syndrome includes a full physical examination and laboratory testing for cholesterol, trygliceride, glucose, and insulin. Remember, a reproductive endocrinologist is the most qualified physician to accurately diagnose and treat PCOS.

What treatments are available for women with polycystic ovary syndrome?

Treatment of PCOS is largely dependent on the symptoms experienced by an individual woman, as well as whether fertility is an issue. For women not interested in becoming pregnant, oral contraceptives are effective for regulating menstrual cycles; reducing the level of male hormones; and minimizing the risks of uterine cancer.

Treatments for the symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome include:

  • Losing weight if you are overweight or obese

  • Progestins (synthetic progesterones)

  • Oral contraceptives

  • Insulin-sensitizing anti-diabetes drugs

  • Anti-androgens

  • GnRH analogs

  • Fertility therapy with ovulation-inducing drugs

  • Surgical therapy
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