According to the Centers for Disease Control, “6% to 12% (as many as 5 million) of US women of reproductive age” have PCOS. But it’s probably a lot more than that. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is the most common endocrine disorder in women of reproductive age and can continue far beyond the child-bearing years. If you’re reading this, chances are that you or someone you know has been diagnosed with PCOS or perhaps you may think you have PCOS and haven’t yet been diagnosed. Below we’ll break down everything you need to know about PCOS and shed some light on this confusing condition.
Why do I have PCOS?
The most important thing is that you don’t blame yourself if you have this condition. Although we don’t know the specific cause of PCOS, we believe it is related to insulin resistance and having higher than average levels of androgens, which is a type of hormone in your body. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome often runs in families, but there may also be environmental factors that play a role, too.
I think I may have PCOS, but haven’t been diagnosed. What are the symptoms?
PCOS can be challenging to understand, especially since there are a variety of common symptoms, though most women with the condition don’t have all of these symptoms. Some women with PCOS may see these symptoms come and go, some may have severe symptoms, and others may have only a few mild symptoms. This is why it’s especially important to work with your Certified Nurse Midwife and/or your OB-GYN in order to be evaluated if you think you may have PCOS. Even though the name of the condition includes polycystic ovary, you do not need to have cystic ovaries in order to have a diagnosis of PCOS. If your healthcare provider suspects that you may have PCOS, they will likely order lab work to help them better understand your hormone levels and individual condition.
Common Symptoms of PCOS (remember, you don’t have to have all of these symptoms to be diagnosed with the condition)
- Irregular or abnormal menstrual periods – irregular duration between bleeding and/or irregular menstrual flow (heavy or light)
- Infertility or subfertility
- Multiple ovarian cysts (small sacs that are benign – not cancer)
- Having an overweight or obese body mass index (BMI)
- Hair growth in areas such as the upper thigh and face
- Thinning hair on the scalp
- Oily skin
- Dark skin patches
- Skin tags/flaps of skin
- High blood pressure, cholesterol, and/or blood sugar levels
What is the treatment for PCOS?
Treatment for PCOS varies based upon the specific symptoms a woman has as well as her lab values. Often treatment includes weight loss for women who have an overweight or obese BMI. First-line treatment for women with PCOS also includes eating a healthy diet and getting adequate physical activity. For women who are not desiring to get pregnant at this time, oral contraceptive pills/hormonal birth control pills are often prescribed that have estrogen and progestin in them. These pills decrease the risk of getting uterine cancer, make the menstrual cycle more regular, decrease excessive hair growth and also help patients that have acne. Some women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome are treated with prescription medications such as metformin, that help their cells be more responsive to insulin (they help with insulin resistance). Also, there are medications to help with acne and abnormal hair growth/loss too.
What health problems come with PCOS?
Women with PCOS are more likely to have or develop insulin resistance. With insulin resistance, the body produces more insulin to try to lower blood sugar levels, since the cells in the body don’t respond to insulin very well. Insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome often go together, and are associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Women with PCOS also have an increased risk of heart (cardiovascular) disease, uterine cancer, sleep apnea, and depression. However, just because your risk is higher than a woman without PCOS does not mean that you will necessarily get these conditions. It’s important, though, to do what you can to lead a healthy lifestyle to decrease your chances of getting these medical conditions and be seen regularly by a CNM or physician who manages PCOS.
Will I be able to get pregnant if I have PCOS?
Even if you aren’t considering pregnancy right now, you may have questions about whether a PCOS diagnosis will impact your ability to get pregnant in the future. Since many women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome do not ovulate (release an egg from their ovaries) regularly, working to help the ovaries release an egg is needed through medications or sometimes weight loss. Although there are some women who are not able to conceive even with medications, most women with the condition are able to get pregnant with assistance from medications, if they desire pregnancy. Talk to your doctor or Certified Nurse Midwife if you want to get pregnant.
Although getting a diagnosis of PCOS may be upsetting at first, by working closely with your CNM, physician, or healthcare provider who has experience helping women with this condition, you will be able to manage your symptoms and decrease your risk of future health problems. You can use this diagnosis to encourage you to increase your self-care through healthier eating habits, adequate physical activity, and working with your healthcare team to be the healthiest you that you can be! If you would like help from one of our women’s health experts, schedule an appointment with Diana Health online or by calling us at (629) 206-6858.
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