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Understanding polycystic ovarian syndrome

Each month when you menstruate, a follicle in one of your ovaries releases one egg. But in 4 percent to 12 percent of all women, things don’t go according to plan. You might suffer from a hormonal disorder called polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) if you haven’t yet reached menopause and you have a combination of these symptoms:

  • irregular or absent periods
  • excess hair on your face or body
  • male-pattern baldness
  • acne
  • elevated triglycerides (blood fat)
  • weight gain
  • dark skin patches
  • difficulty conceiving

What causes PCOS?

If your body produces too much male hormone, your ovaries release eggs less frequently or not at all. Periods become irregular or absent. Because the follicles in the ovaries don’t burst to release their eggs, they develop into multiple cysts—thus the name polycystic ovaries, meaning ovaries with many cysts. The exact cause is unknown, but research suggests there may be a link to the hormone insulin.

Dangerous complications

PCOS may put you at increased risk for:

  • Diabetes. Your blood insulin levels might be high, which can lead to type 2 diabetes or gestational diabetes during pregnancy.
  • Endometrial cancer. The irregular ovulation that characterizes PCOS can expose you to high levels of estrogen, a known risk factor of endometrial cancer. Your doctor may order a biopsy to check for this condition. A tiny tissue sample is taken from your uterine lining in the doctor’s office for laboratory analysis.
  • Heart disease. Fats in your blood called triglycerides may be high, and “good” cholesterol (HDL) levels may be low. This raises your chance of developing cardiovascular disease.

Diagnosing PCOS

If you suspect you may have PCOS, it is important to see your doctor. He or she will evaluate your medical history and symptoms and will perform a physical exam, which may include blood tests to measure your hormone levels, your blood sugar and the fats in your blood. Your doctor may also have you undergo a transvaginal ultrasound of your ovaries to determine whether you have any cysts. A probe gently placed into your vagina bounces sound waves off your ovaries, producing an image on a computer screen. A radiologist interprets the image for your doctor.

Treating PCOS

Hormone therapy to stimulate regular periods may help PCOS. If medical treatment doesn’t work, surgery can disable male hormone-producing ovarian cells. The good news is that you can avoid complications from PCOS with early diagnosis and treatment with medication.