Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a common cause of poor fertility in women, and the symptoms can be overwhelming in daily life. However, despite affecting 1 in every 10 to 20 women of childbearing age,1it’s also underdiagnosed and many PCOS sufferers don’t even realize they have it. If you’re having trouble conceiving, it’s good to be aware of PCOS.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): What is it?
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) starts with the ovaries themselves: as in a healthy system, the ovaries are filled with thousands of tiny immature follicles, each containing an egg cell. However, for PCOS sufferers, these follicles mature too slowly, and they don’t release an egg properly at ovulation.
With too many of these damp-squib follicles built up in the ovaries, the patient may suffer menstrual irregularities and anovulatory cycles which cause infertility – hence why PCOS is often considered an ovulatory disorder. PCOS is the most common hormonal disorder for women of reproductive age, and the symptoms usually begin in adolescence when you start menstruating.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) symptoms
The symptoms of PCOS vary from person to person, but some of the common symptoms can include:
- Anovulatory cycles, amenorrhea and menstrual irregularities due to failure of ovulation
- Menorrhagia and abnormal vaginal bleeding due to hormone imbalance
- Excess hair growth, acne, and voice deepening caused by excessive amounts of androgen hormones in ovaries
What causes Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?
Scientists still haven’t discovered exactly what causes PCOS, but there are a number of explanations.
The pituitary gland controls the release of FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) and LH (luteinizing hormone). These hormones have the role of waking up the dormant ovarian follicles into development and triggering ovulation respectively. However, if more LH is being secreted compared with FSH, the cycle could come out of balance, causing the follicles to develop improperly and fail to ovulate on schedule.
Insulin, released by the pancreas, could play a role in PCOS symptoms. Many PCOS sufferers have an excess of insulin in their bodies, and insulin can also lead to excess production of androgens.
It’s thought that genetic factors play a role in likelihood of developing PCOS. If you have an affected mother or sister, for instance, you’re more likely to develop the condition.
What is the treatment for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?
There’s currently no cure for PCOS, but it is manageable with the right treatment. Here are some of the common therapies used to help PCOS sufferers manage in their daily lives.
Birth control pills
Assuming you don’t want to get pregnant, contraceptive pills can be an effective way to regulate the menstrual cycle. This can also reduce male hormones, helping to block excess acne and hair growth.
Many of the hallmark PCOS symptoms like excess acne and hair growth are due to the over-production of androgens. If patients are troubled by this, hormone therapy to bring down levels of male hormones may be introduced, or combined with birth control pills.
Many women with PCOS struggle with obesity. To help reduce the risk of obesity-related health problems, a health care team may recommend a weight management plan based on developing healthy eating and exercise habits.
Trying to conceive with PCOS
Trying to conceive a baby can be challenging for women with PCOS, but the right treatment can make it possible. To address the failure to ovulate, the patient may be prescribed fertility drugs such as clomiphene (Clomid®) to stimulate ovulation. Clomiphene is a relatively mild medication with few side effects, so although it may take a while to kick in, it’s often the go-to for women trying to conceive with PCOS.
If clomiphene fails to start ovulation, injectable fertility drugs called gonadotropins may be enough to get things back on track. These are relatively more effective than clomiphene, but may cause fluid retention and increase the risk of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome.
In some cases, laparoscopic surgery (also called “keyhole surgery”) may be an option for women with PCOS. The right fertility assistance depends on your particular situation, so don’t hesitate to speak your doctor about the best way to meet your fertility goals.
Preventing Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: Is it possible?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to prevent PCOS. However, for some sufferers, it is possible to control some of the symptoms related to insulin resistance. This often includes lifestyle adjustments like avoiding eating too much sugar, and encouraging a healthy weight range through moderate exercise.
Early diagnosis is the key to controlling PCOS
Even if there’s no cure for PCOS, the right treatment makes it possible to gain control of your ovarian cycle and bring your hormones into a healthier, more comfortable range. However, left untreated, the symptoms of PCOS can worsen over time, and may require more aggressive treatment if you decide to try and get pregnant. If you’re thinking of getting pregnant, it’s a good idea to see your doctor earlier rather than later to see if there’s anything in your system you should be aware of.