Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that affects how a woman’s ovaries work.
PCOS affects millions of women in the UK.
There are three features which lead to a woman being diagnosed with PCOS. Even if only two of them are present, this is enough to confirm the diagnosis. The features of PCOS include:
- a number of cysts that develop around the edge of the ovaries (polycystic ovaries)
- a failure in the release of eggs from the ovaries (ovulation)
- a higher level of male hormones than normal, or male hormones that are more active than normal
These can lead to the following symptoms:
- excessive body hair (hirsutism)
- irregular or light periods
- problems getting pregnant (infertility)
- weight gain
- hair loss from the head
What are polycystic ovaries?
Polycystic ovaries contain a large number of harmless cysts that are no bigger than 8mm each. Normal ovaries have only about half this number of cysts.
The cysts are under-developed follicles which contain eggs that haven’t developed properly. Often in PCOS, these follicles are unable to release an egg, meaning ovulation doesn’t take place.
Many women have polycystic ovaries without having the syndrome (without the symptoms). Some women have the syndrome, but have normal-looking ovaries on ultrasound.
Causes of polycystic ovary syndrome
The exact cause of PCOS is unknown, but it often runs in families.
Women who are overweight are more at risk of developing PCOS. Many women with PCOS have a family history of diabetes and high cholesterol.
It’s also believed that insulin may play a role. Insulin is a hormone that controls sugar levels in the body. Many women with PCOS have too much insulin in their body, which contributes to the increased production and activity of male hormones. Being overweight increases the amount of insulin that your body produces.
Treating polycystic ovary syndrome
There’s no cure for PCOS, but the symptoms can be treated. Specific types of contraceptive pill may be prescribed to help regulate the menstrual cycle and improve hair growth. Lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, may help to control some of the symptoms.
Polycystic ovary syndrome is associated with an increased risk of problems in later life, such as type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol levels.
There are treatment options for infertility caused by PCOS. There’s also medication to increase ovulation and, in some cases, surgery.
Many women with fertility problems due to PCOS can still have a baby.
(Source: NHS website shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License [accessed June 20th 2012])
PCOS also shares some symptoms with Cushing’s syndrome, so if you are worried that you may have either of these conditions, please speak to your GP.