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What is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome?

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Updated January 14, 2014

Definition of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome

Unless you or some you know has it, chances are you’ve never heard of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, or PCOS. According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, “PCOS is a condition in which a woman’s ovaries and in some cases the adrenal glands, produce more androgens (a type of hormone, similar to testosterone) than normal”. While all women produce some androgens, women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome have higher levels of these hormones, leading to increased hair growth, acne and irregular periods. It is important to note that women frequently experience a variety of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome symptoms, ranging from very mild to severe. Every woman’s experience of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome is different.

Who Gets Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and What Causes It?

As the most common endocrine disorder in women of child-bearing age, women of all races and nationalities have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. While researchers have not definitively labeled PCOS being passed through genetics, it is believed that there may be a genetic component involved. This is because many women who have the disease also have family members who have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. It is known that Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome is associated with a hormonal imbalance of androgens, or male hormones, but we do not know exactly what causes the disease. This imbalance affects nearly every body system, leading to the vast differences in symptoms that women experience. It is also responsible for the problems processing blood sugar that is so typical in women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Symptoms typically begin to appear in adolescence and persist through adulthood.

 

Complications of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome

Because Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome affects so many other systems, having Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome puts you at risk for a number of other conditions. If you are not having regular periods, and there is routinely more then 60 days between periods, this puts you at a greater risk for endometrial cancer. Shedding the endometrial lining regularly is necessary to prevent the growth of abnormal cells. In this case, your doctor may give you medication to regulate your cycles, like birth control pills. Insulin resistance, or difficulty regulating blood sugar, is common in Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, putting you at risk for type II diabetes, cardiac disease, high cholesterol and metabolic syndrome. This syndrome is a combination of a number of those factors, including obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol. It is important to maintain a healthy diet and regular exercise program to help minimize your chances of developing these complications.

I’ve Just Been Diagnosed, What Should I Do Now?

First and most importantly, find an endocrinologist with whom you feel comfortable and who can guide you in your decision. If you feel uncomfortable with their diagnosis or treatment options, get a second or even third opinion. Second, educate yourself. Learn what the various treatments are and how to properly manage your symptoms. Understanding your disease will help you feel more in control and informed when making treatment choices. Finally, get support from other women with this disease. By speaking with other women who have PCOS, you can gain solace in knowing that you are not alone. A number of groups and organizations can assist you in finding both education and support.

Next:
Symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome

Sources:

"Defining PCOS". 2007. The University of Chicago Medical Center. 12 September 2007.

"Polycystic Ovary Syndrome". 25 May 2007. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. 12 September 2007.

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