The Basics: Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)

August 22, 2012 / Scott Barton MD

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Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a complex medical condition characterized by an excessive amount of male hormone (testosterone) production, abnormalities with ovulation (the production of an egg by the ovary), and multiple cysts on the ovaries.  This condition impacts the health of women as there is an increased chance of diabetes, metabolic disorders such as diabetes, and heart disease.  This condition is also a well as a well known cause of female infertility.  

Findings associated with PCOS are excessive hair growth on areas of the body in which hair is not normally found, lack of periods/irregular periods, and ultrasound findings of multiple cysts on the ovaries.  PCOS is also associated with insulin resistance as shown by changes in the skin, abdominal obesity, increased blood pressure, abnormal levels of fat in the blood, and increased levels of sugar in the blood.

The diagnosis of PCOS can be complicated but women who should be evaluated for PCOS include those who have mild excessive hair growth, those who have moderate/severe hair growth or obesity with other features of PCOS such as irregular or absent menses.   Young girls who have irregular periods over two or more years or have persistent heavy bleeding with periods or adolescent girls who are obese that have not responded to usual treatments for weight loss should also be evaluated for PCOS.  The diagnosis also includes testing the blood for excessive levels of the male hormone, documenting multiple small cysts on the ovaries by ultrasound, and the measurement of sugar levels in the blood.  

Treatment of PCOS is dependent upon a woman’s desire for fertility.  If she does not want to get pregnant, lifestyle modifications such as diet and exercise are usually tried.  Birth control pills or other hormones are often used to regulate periods and medication is used to treat insulin resistance.  In women who desire to become pregnant medication is used to help the ovaries produce an egg in order to increase the chance of fertilization.

Category: Women's Health