So what is PCOS, or Polycystic Ovary Syndrome? Well in short, it is a condition that causes a hormone imbalance in females. As well as being able to cause the growth of cysts on the ovaries, the condition affects a woman’s menstrual cycle and weight.
PCOS is linked to dips and changes in particular hormones:
- Progesterone and Estrogen: – These are the female hormones the body relies on to achieve ovulation.
- Androgen: Although this is a male hormone, it is found in very small amounts in females.
According to the University of Chicago Medicine, although Polycystic Ovarian Disease is most commonly diagnosed in young adult females, it will persist right through the reproductive years and beyond.
When asking what is PCOS, many women do not understand that it can affect each individual female differently. Therefore, the symptoms I have experienced, may not necessarily be the same as the ones you are faced with yourself.
The University of Chicago Medicine states that between five and ten percent of reproductive age women suffer from PCOS.
While this may not sound a lot, it makes PCOS the most common hormonal condition suffered by women of this particular age. So you’re not alone out there – we are many who experience this condition.
The Common Symptoms of PCOS – Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
So, What is PCOS?
This question can be accurately answered without mentioning the many different symptoms associated with the condition.
As mentioned, the symptoms of PCOS will vary between individuals, with some women suffering worse than others.
The most common symptoms associated with Polycystic Ovarian Disease are:
Changes in the Menstrual Cycle – Irregular Periods
It is common for women who suffer from PCOS to experience irregular periods – that is they come and go and can vary between being extremely heavy and very light.
Development of Male-Like Characteristics
Excess facial and body hair, decreased breast size and thinning of the head hair are the most common symptoms, although they are not necessarily experienced by all sufferers.
Deepening of the voice and an enlarged clitoris are also common male-like symptoms associated with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, although they are nowhere near as common as the others.
Unpleasant Skin Changes
Many women diagnosed with PCOS complain of changes in their skin – most often an increase in spots and even acne. It is not unusual for PCOS suffers to experience darkening and creasing of the skin, especially around the breasts, armpits and neck.
Painful Ovarian Cysts
Not every woman with PCOS will suffer with cysts on their ovaries – even though most women, when asking what is PCOS, will assume ALL sufferers experience the cysts it is actually not experienced by all.
Talking from my own experience, I had a cyst around ten years ago which led to an operation to remove it – this was because it was the size of a grapefruit and was causing considerable pain.
My doctor told me then that for a cyst to grow to that size was actually quite rare and while ultrasounds, both then and since, have revealed I have several small cysts on my ovaries, I have never had to have another operation.
Obesity and Yo-Yo-ing Weight Gain and Loss
Women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome are more likely to struggle to maintain a healthy weight and many sufferers go on to be obese. This symptom can also increase the woman’s risk of insulin-dependent diabetes.
OK, so the symptoms sound terrifying BUT once you receive a polycystic ovarian disease diagnosis it is actually easily treated and managed. I have suffered from yo-yo-ing weight gain and loss, as well as embarrassing facial hair and thinning of my head hair.
However, the treatment given to me by my doctor, along with a few common sense changes to my life have helped me accept the condition and learn how to manage it.
PCOS and Insulin Resistance – A Slow Reaction to Insulin
According the American Diabetes Association, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and insulin resistance are commonly found together. (reference http://www.diabetes.org/living-with-diabetes/women/polycystic-ovarian-syndrome.html).
Insulin is a hormone produced by a gland in the body’s abdomen known as the pancreas. It is normally secreted by a person’s body in response to large amounts of sugar or glucose in the blood.
Women who suffer from polycystic ovarian disease commonly have an insulin resistance – this means their body reacts slower than other people to the insulin.
This sluggish response to insulin will gradually change the way the woman’s body deals with sugar.
Consistently high levels of glucose in the blood could eventually lead to diabetes.
According to the American Association of Diabetes, as many as 40-percent of women with PCOS who also have insulin resistance will eventually become diabetic.
The Importance of Screening for Diabetes
Of course, now medical professionals are aware of the link between PCOS and insulin resistance, women who are diagnosed with the condition will also be screened for diabetes.
A glucose tolerance test is also needed, to assess the woman’s blood sugars. Being screened for diabetes as soon as a PCOS diagnosis is given is really very important, as diabetes increases a person’s risk of strokes, cardiovascular disease and other serious conditions.
Screening for diabetes is optional, although if a woman has had a firm PCOS diagnosis it is highly recommended she takes advantage of the various tests available.
If results show you are at risk of developing diabetes, steps can be taken to reduce this risk.
Prevention Is Always Better Than the Cure….
Unfortunately, at this present time there is no cure for diabetes and no magical treatment that will get rid of polycystic ovary syndrome completely either.
However, there are steps you can take to reduce your chances of getting diabetes, including managing your weight by following a healthy diet plan and taking part in regular exercise – at least 30 minutes each day.
Avoiding unnecessary sugars and fats will also help you maintain a healthy weight.
Visit your doctor if you want to know what is PCOS and how you can control the symptoms, as well as reduce the risks.
PCOS is NOT the Same as Polycystic Ovaries
According to The University of Chicago Medicine there is a distinct difference between Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and Polycystic Ovaries.
While polycystic ovaries are seen in women with PCOS, it isn’t always the case. In fact, around 20-percent of women with polycystic ovaries will not suffer from the hormonal and menstrual abnormalities associated with the syndrome.
Women who suffer from irregular periods, hormone imbalance and polycystic ovaries, actually suffer from a condition called “ovarian androgen excess”.
However, because the term Polycystic Ovary Syndrome has been used for over 70-years, it has become an umbrella term for all conditions.
I am not one of the 20-percent, I have suffered from menstrual and hormonal abnormalities – although the treatment I have really does help.
Because there is such variability in how PCOS presents itself, it can take a while before the appropriate treatment is found that suits the individual.
Even when treatment commences, some symptoms will still persist – most commonly facial and body hair – which have to be managed using alternative methods.
The Causes of PCOS are Vague but Are Related to Insulin Insensitivity
It is nearly impossible to answer the question, What is PCOS?
Without discussing the potential causes of the condition. However, up to now, medical professionals, scientists and researchers have all failed to find an absolute cause for this common condition.
According to experts at the Department of Women’s Heath, insulin plays a large part in the cause of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. (http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/polycystic-ovary-syndrome.cfm#c).
As already discussed, women with Polycystic Ovarian Disease usually have excess insulin, as well as increasing the woman’s risk of developing diabetes too much insulin leads to an over-production of the hormone androgen.
High levels of androgen can lead to:
- Thinning hair on the head
- Poor skin and acne
- Ovulation problems
According to the Department of Women’s Health, experts are certain there is a genetic link when it comes to women and polycystic ovary syndrome.
Studies regarding what is PCOS, have revealed that women are four times more likely to be diagnosed with the condition if their sister, mother or grandmother suffered from the condition.
However, the exact genetics surrounding PCOS is still under investigation, and nothing concrete has been determined as of yet.
What is PCOS Treatment and Does it Work?
My very first thought when I was diagnosed with PCOS at 16 was, please let there be a good treatment so I don’t end up with a deep voice and a fully-grown beard.
Of course, my reaction was part shock and part misinformation – which is why it is important you ask your doctor and specialist what side effects and symptoms you can expect with polycystic ovary syndrome.
Don’t be afraid to ask …
- What is PCOS?
- How Will Affect Me?
- And Can it be Treated?
Your doctor is there to help, so if you experience any symptoms you are not sure about then you should bring them up with your medical professional.
There are many different types of treatment your doctor may suggest to manage your polycystic ovary syndrome.
However, birth control is the most common prescription given to sufferers, as it can settle several of your symptoms.
Not only will birth control regulate your menstrual period, it should also reduce skin problems such as acne, as well as reducing levels of the hormone androgen.
If your only symptom is irregular periods, your doctor is most likely to prescribe an insulin-sensitizing drug that will help induce a period, in turn regulating your cycle. This is a particularly helpful treatment for PCOS women who are trying to conceive.
A PCOS Diet or Low Glycemic Diet
Although there is not a lot of science behind the claims that certain changes in a women’s diet will help reduce PCOS symptoms, there is enough for doctor’s to recommend women try to maintain a healthy weight by following a low-carbohydrate diet.
This is meant to help reduce polycystic ovary syndrome symptoms, as well as help manage them long-term. The American Diabetes Association also recommends PCOS sufferers partake in regular exercise, as this helps the body regulate blood sugar levels therefore using insulin more effectively.
Surgery – ‘Drilling’
While there is surgery available in the treatment of polycystic ovary syndrome, it is by no means the first course of action a doctor will take following a diagnosis – unless the woman has a cyst that potentially needs to be surgically removed that it.
The procedure, known as drilling, involves making a small incision above the navel, so a small instrument, known as a laparoscope, can be inserted in.
This allows the surgeon to make small holes in the ovary, using electrical currents supplied by a needle. This destroys a small section of the ovary but the procedure is supposed to help regulate hormone levels and encourage regular ovulation.
It must be noted that this is a temporary fix, with results lasting no longer than six months usually, and by no means is a cure for the syndrome.
Fortunately PCOS Is a Very Manageable Condition
Having lived with PCOS for fifteen years, I can confirm that is a frustrating condition to have.
Excess body hair and acne are hardly attractive side-effects, which is why many women are so freaked out when they are first told they have the syndrome.
Despite having my issues, worries about fertility and concerns over my health, I have managed to effectively manage the condition – with only the odd hiccup along the way.
As a woman’s body changes and becomes older, it is necessary for the treatment to change – you may find your usual treatment is not working or you may develop symptoms associated with polycystic ovary syndrome that you have never experienced before.
Always seek advice from your doctor!
And remember, even if you have no idea what is PCOS when you are first diagnosed, you will soon learn that it is a very manageable condition.
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