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Polycystic ovary syndrome

AGE  Affects females of childbearing ageGENDER  
LIFESTYLE  Not a significant factorGENETICS  Sometimes runs in families

Polycystic ovary syndrome is the development of multiple, small, fluid-filled cysts in the ovaries, which may be associated with a sex hormone imbalance.

Polycystic ovary syndrome
© Jupiter

In polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), both of the ovaries become enlarged with multiple, small, fluid-filled cysts. The condition is associated with a sex hormone imbalance, which may include higher than normal levels of the male sex hormone testosterone. The hormone imbalance may prevent ovulation (egg release), thus reducing fertility (see Female infertility), and may lead to excessive growth of body hair (see Virilization).

The underlying cause of PCOS is not fully understood but the increased resistance of body tissues to the hormone insulin that is a feature of the syndrome is thought to play an important part. To compensate for the increased insulin resistance, the pancreas produces excessive insulin, which, in turn, may lead to overproduction of testosterone, high levels of which disrupt normal functioning of the ovaries. PCOS sometimes runs in families.

What are the symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome?

The symptoms vary. PCOS may go unnoticed until a woman is tested for infertility. Symptoms include:

  • Infrequent or absent periods (see Amenorrhoea).
  • Obesity.
  • Excessive hair growth.

Women with PCOS have an increased risk of developing diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure (see Hypertension), coronary heart disease, and cancer of the uterus.

What might be done?

If your doctor suspects that you have PCOS, he or she will take blood samples to measure your levels of sex hormones. You may also have ultrasound scanning to look for ovarian cysts.

Treatment depends on the severity of your symptoms and whether you want to conceive. Infertility can be treated with drugs, such as clomifene (see Drugs for infertility). If drugs are unsuccessful, the cysts may be treated with diathermy (a type of heat treatment) carried out during laparoscopy. If necessary, assisted conception may then be considered. If you do not want to have children, abnormal periods can be treated with a combined oral contraceptive pill.

To treat insulin resistance and reduce your risk of developing diabetes, you may be prescribed an antidiabetic drug (see Drugs for diabetes mellitus), such as metformin. Such drugs may also restore ovulation and regulate your menstrual periods. If you are overweight, losing weight may help to relieve symptoms of PCOS. Excess hair can be removed by electrolysis.

Posted 09.09.2010

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