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What is PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome)?

An overview of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) to help you understand the cause of your symptoms and PCOS treatment options

Polycystic ovary syndrome is referred to as PCOS. It’s shockingly common – affecting up to 18% of women of reproductive age,1 making PCOS the most frequently occurring hormone-related disorder.

Polycystic ovary syndrome affects insulin, body weight, oxidative stress, inflammation, lipid levels, and immune pathways,” Hector Francisco Escobar-Morreale, PhD, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Alcalá and head of the Department of Endocrinology of Hospital Universitario Ramón y Cajal in Madrid, Spain, told EndocrineWeb.2

Are my symptoms caused by a metabolic condition called PCOS? What has caused me to have no periods, high blood sugar, weight gain, acne, and so much facial hair? PCOS

Why You Are Having So Many Unexplained Symptoms

Women with PCOS seek care for the more obvious symptoms such as irregular periods, increased facial and body hair growth, and trouble conceiving (infertility). However, patients should be aware that polycystic ovary syndrome predisposes women to a range of metabolic abnormalities. These include insulin resistance and impaired glucose tolerance (a sign of prediabetes), both of which increase a person’s risk of type 2 diabetes (T2D).3

Less known but just as common, women with PCOS have metabolic syndrome.3 Symptoms associated with metabolic syndrome include:

  • A high level of triglycerides and low HDL (or high-density lipoprotein, which is considered the good cholesterol),
  • Increased waist circumference (or excess weight around the middle of the body/the stomach),
  • High blood pressure
  • High fasting glucose levels.

Metabolic syndrome also predisposes a woman with polycystic ovary syndrome to type 2 diabetes.Despite years of research linking reproductive and metabolic abnormalities to PCOS, the exact cause of this condition remains unknown.3 According to the PCOS Foundation, approximately 50% of women with PCOS who don’t know it’s the cause of their irregular periods, infertility, and metabolic symptoms.5

Now Can You Be Sure That It's PCOS

So, polycystic ovary syndrome remains a diagnosis of exclusion. There are several other diseases that can mimic many of the same symptoms common to PCOS. Therefore, arriving at a diagnosis can be frustrating for both patients and clinicians, and takes time.

Yet PCOS – a condition with far-reaching hormone and metabolic remains frustrating, complex, and an unknown health challenge for many women. Women seeking help often have faced years of struggle in trying to find answers to their medical conditions. In the largest survey ever of women with PCOS, one in three women reported having seen three or more health professionals over at least two years before getting a diagnosis,5 according to an international survey of 1,385 women from 48 different countries conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.  

Since you’ve found your way to EndocrineWeb, your long journey for answers is over. Despite not knowing the exact cause of PCOS, major medical organizations throughout the country are taking the diagnosis and treatment of PCOS seriously—raising awareness and shortening the amount of time and number of healthcare practitioners you may have to see in order to finally get the help you are seeking. There’s a growing understanding, too, of the mechanisms behind PCOS—pointing women and their doctors more confidently toward the best approaches to care.

There’s also a growing awareness, too, of the related health conditions that may come with having polycystic ovary syndrome. Compared to women who do not have PCOS, for example, those with it face twice the risk of heart disease, diabetes, endometrial cancer, reproductive difficulties, and mental health challenges,6 according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

Seek Help from a Physician Who is Ready to Work With YOU

These days, the standard of care for women with PCOS focuses on treating the main concerns of the patient.7 The doctor will work with patients to reduce hormonal imbalances, such as lowering testosterone levels and making adjustments to achieve regular periods, which is important to reduce the risk of endometrial cancer. Medical care for women with PCOS also includes actively screening for, preventing, and if necessary, treating any metabolic problems, including prediabetes and diabetes.

Women and their doctors have learned a great deal about the experience of living with PCOS, and the help you will need to regain your health. This includes mental health as PCOS raises the risk for depression and anxiety in some women. Fortunately, approaches ranging from counseling to exercise and from support groups to yoga can make help restore a sense of wellbeing.

In the sections that follow, you’ll discover the latest research and newest thinking about what leads to PCOS, the symptoms that many women face with this syndrome, and the best ways to diagnose and treat hormone and metabolic imbalances. Take our 2-minute PCOS test to determine if you are experiencing the symptoms doctors look for. You’ll also learn more about finding the right doctor – or team of doctors – to work with you. It’s smart to get serious about seeing if PCOS explains your symptoms. You’ve found the right place to start. 

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What Causes PCOS? and How Will It Affect My Body?