Doctors estimate that as many as 10% of women of childbearing age suffer from Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, a disorder of the endocrine system marked by irregular menstrual cycles, infertility, obesity and a variety of hormonal symptoms. There is no cure for the disorder, but new treatment plans can help manage the symptoms, which include:
- Irregular or missed periods
- Trouble losing weight
- High blood sugar
- Ovarian cysts
- Hirsutism (excessive facial hair)
- Thinning or loss of scalp hair
What is PCOS?
PCOS is short for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, a disorder of the endocrine system, with no known cause. The ovaries of women with PCOS produce excessive amounts of male hormones, triggering a variety of symptoms, the most common symptom of which is insulin resistance, followed by irregular or missed periods. Another of the most common symptom gives PCOS its name: multiple cysts on the ovaries.
Diagnosis of PCOS
PCOS is often a difficult diagnosis, as the symptoms vary from case to case. Many patients have irregular periods, but not all suffer from infertility or obesity. Some patients have several cysts on their ovaries, while other women may have no cysts at all.
The diagnostic process begins with a visit to the gynecologist, who performs an examination and asks questions about the patient’s medical history. A blood test may be taken to test hormone levels, and a pelvic ultrasound may be used to check for the presence of ovarian cysts.
Once a diagnosis has been made, the doctor will discuss treatment options based on the patient’s symptoms. Oral contraceptives can help regulate the body’s hormone levels, and drugs typically used to treat diabetes can help with high insulin levels and weight gain. Other treatments include Spironolactone, a blood pressure medication that helps reduce excessive facial hair, and Propecia, a drug that slows loss of scalp hair.
Infertility is a common side effect of PCOS, due to the interruption in the ovulation cycle, and is usually treated with fertility drugs to stimulate the ovaries. Many of the medications used to treat other symptoms cannot be taken by women trying to achieve pregnancy, as they interfere with the development of the fetus.
One of the best ways to manage PCOS is to maintain a healthy weight. A loss of even 10% of a woman’s body weight can help lower the patient’s blood sugar, which in turn may help regulate her menstrual cycle. Many PCOS sufferers report success in following a diet low in refined carbohydrates and sugars to help maintain a steady blood sugar level. Consistent, regular exercise helps insulin regulation and weight loss, and has been proven beneficial to combating depression.
If none of the standard treatment plans succeed, doctors may consider surgery. Because surgery only treats a part of the problem and will typically have little effect on other symptoms, procedures such as ovarian drilling (destruction of a part of the ovary) and cauterization (removing the cysts with a cauterizing tool) are recommended only in the most severe cases.