Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)

PCOS at a glance

  • Polycystic ovary (or ovarian) syndrome (PCOS) is a common hormonal disorder that affects up to 5 million women in the United States alone.
  • With PCOS, small follicles (egg-containing cysts) in the ovaries do not develop eggs properly, disrupting ovulation and leading to an excess of androgen, a male hormone.
  • Symptoms of PCOS are irregular or absent menstrual periods; excessive hair growth on the face, back or chest; acne; weight gain; and insulin resistance.
  • While no cure currently exists for PCOS, the symptoms can be treated and managed through medication and healthy lifestyle choices.

What is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)?

PCOS, sometimes known as Stein-Leventhal syndrome or hyperandrogenic anovulation, is a common hormonal disorder that affects up to 5 million women in the United States, according to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG). It is considered to be the most common hormonal imbalance disorder in reproductive-aged women.

Symptoms of PCOS

PCOS is a hormonal disorder, so the symptoms are widespread throughout the body. Not all women with PCOS have the same symptoms.

Women with PCOS may have any of the following symptoms:

  • Irregular or absent menstrual periods
  • Acne
  • Excessive hair growth on the face, back, or chest (hirsutism)
  • Elevated male hormone levels
  • Polycystic-appearing ovaries (more than 12 peripheral follicles)
  • Weight gain or difficulty losing weight
  • Evidence of diabetes or insulin resistance
  • High blood sugar (hyperglycemia)
  • High cholesterol

For ovulation to occur, a normal, estrogen-dominant environment must be present in the ovary. In women with PCOS, there is a higher amount of androgen released by the ovaries, and the hormonal balance between estrogen and androgen is disrupted, leading to ovulation problems.

Over time, PCOS can lead to a hormonal imbalance in the woman’s entire system, affecting the woman’s fertility and causing other serious health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, or hypertension. Women with PCOS are also at a higher risk for endometrial and uterine cancer.

Related reading: PCOS & Fertility

Causes of PCOS

Currently, the causes of PCOS are unknown. However, since women with PCOS are more likely to have a close female relative with the syndrome as well, researchers think that genetics may be a factor.

In addition, women with a family history of diabetes may be at higher risk of developing PCOS.

PCOS treatment

There is no known cure for PCOS, but there are several forms of treatment available that can help manage the symptoms of this lifelong medical condition. In order to prevent the long-term health risks posed by PCOS, women should begin treatment as soon as they are diagnosed.

Women with PCOS should be checked regularly for the following conditions:

  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Uterine cancer

Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and regular exercise is the most effective treatment for PCOS. Although PCOS can be managed with certain types of medication, good nutrition and weight loss can reduce the risks of diabetes or heart disease and lower insulin levels, as well as improve ovulation and fertility.

Cosmetic procedures, such as electrolysis or laser hair removal, can treat excess hair growth. Some medications, including birth control pills, may help with hair loss, acne management or menstrual cycle regulation.

Related reading: ACOG PCOS patient resources