Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is a common hormonal disorder that affects women of reproductive age by causing an enlargement of the ovaries. The reproductive organs also become covered in numerous small cysts. The cysts themselves are not harmful or serious, but they do create a hormonal imbalance. This causes the woman’s hormones to trigger each other in an abnormal way, which can lead to various complications.

It is not yet fully understood why this happens. However, it is thought that genetics may play a roll. Women who have a family history of polycystic ovary syndrome or diabetes seem to have a higher chance of experiencing it. It is also worth noting that it can be passed down from the father’s side as well as the mother’s. Polycystic ovary syndrome may only last for a while, or it can be a life long condition. It usually begins shortly after a woman hits puberty, but it may also develop in later years.

What are the Symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

As with many disorders, every woman experiences polycystic ovary syndrome in a different way. While usually mild in the beginning, some women experience few symptoms while others see a lot of them. The most common ones include:

  • Menstrual irregularity
  • Acne
  • Thinning hair on the scalp
  • High blood sugar
  • Weight gain
  • Depression
  • Trouble losing weight
  • Excessive body and facial hair growth
  • Fertility issues
  • Ovaries covered in cysts (visible on ultrasound)

Additionally, untreated polycystic ovary syndrome can lead to long-term complications, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Causes

Doctors do not know exactly what causes polycystic ovary syndrome, but they believe it is a combination of hormonal imbalances and genetics. Women with a family history of the condition are more likely to develop it themselves. It also has strong connections to diabetes, so women with diabetes or a family history of that condition are also at risk of developing polycystic ovary syndrome.

Another risk factor for this condition is long-term use of a medicine used for seizure conditions called valproate.

One specific hormone doctors believe contributes to the condition is androgen (a male sex hormone which the female body produces in small quantities) and insulin. They think excess insulin (one of the hormones in the body that helps convert sugars and starches into energy) in a woman’s body can cause overproduction of androgen. This overproduction is responsible for changes in the ovulation cycle.

Doctors also believe low-grade inflammation can play a role in causing overproduction of androgen in the body.

How is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Treated?

Treatment for polycystic ovary syndrome is usually focused on managing the patient’s main concerns. Some doctors might recommend lifestyle changes such as increased activity, dietary changes, and weight loss. In other cases, medications can be used to regulate the woman’s menstrual cycle, aid with ovulation if she is trying to become pregnant, or control excessive hair growth.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Prevention

Polycystic ovary syndrome is hereditary and therefore cannot be prevented. The genetic factors are not fully understood right now and, therefore, there is no genetic testing that can indicate whether or not the condition will affect a person. Genetic counseling, however, may or may not be helpful in determining the risk of passing the condition on.

Knowing what the risk factors are, getting an early diagnosis and undergoing medical treatment can help prevent some of the long-term complications of this condition from occurring including infertility, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Parents with a family history of polycystic ovary syndrome should be vigilant in watching their children for symptoms once the first menstrual cycle occurs, and confer with a doctor if or when they start seeing the signs.


Last Reviewed:
September 14, 2016
Last Updated:
January 09, 2018