A women’s guide to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

By: Osler Health International
Posted on: 23 May 2024

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is a type of endocrine disorder that affects many women around the world. In Singapore, specifically, it affects 5 to 10% of women of reproductive age, according to SingHealth.

What is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)?

Polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS develops when the ovaries produce excess androgens (these are male sex hormones that women may have), but typically in small amounts. The term “polycystic” comes from the numerous small cysts that could potentially form in the ovaries when an individual has PCOS. However, there are some instances where a cyst may not develop.

There is no proven cause as to why some women develop PCOS. However, healthcare professionals suggest that genetic and environmental contributors play a part, along with obesity, ovarian dysfunction, and hormonal changes.

How does PCOS occur?

Sometimes, hormonal imbalances could impede the regularity of ovulation in a woman. Without regular ovulation, numerous small cysts can form on the ovaries, which then produce higher levels of male hormones known as androgens. High androgen levels in women with PCOS can disrupt the regularity of menstrual cycles and manifest in various symptomatic presentations characteristic of PCOS.

Symptoms of PCOS

The symptoms of PCOS can vary significantly from person to person, but they typically include:

  • Skipped, irregular, or notably light menstrual cycles
  • Enlarged ovaries with multiple cysts
  • Increased body hair, including on the chest, stomach, and back (known as hirsutism)
  • Weight gain, primarily around the stomach area
  • Acne or excessively oily skin
  • Hair loss or thinning in a pattern similar to male baldness
  • Difficulty conceiving (infertility)
  • Small flaps of extra skin on the neck or armpits (skin tags)
  • Darkened or thickened skin patches on the back of the neck, in the armpits, and beneath the breasts

How is PCOS diagnosed?

doctor with experience in women’s health check ups can assess and analyse your symptoms to help rule out other causes and conditions, and confirm a diagnosis of PCOS.

This diagnostic process may involve blood pressure or blood tests, as PCOS is often linked to other health conditions, like hypertension and Diabetes.

After that, you might be asked to do multiple hormone tests to determine whether PCOS is the cause of excess hormone production or another hormone-related condition.

Furthermore, you might also require an ultrasound scan to check for a high number of follicles in your ovaries, which is indicative of polycystic ovaries (fluid-filled sacs where eggs mature).

What are the long-term risks of PCOS?

PCOS can also lead to several long-term health risks if not managed properly. Some of the most significant long-term risks associated with PCOS include:

  • Weight gain or obesity: Many women with PCOS experience rapid weight gain or have difficulty maintaining a healthy weight due to hormonal imbalances that affect metabolism. Obesity further exacerbates the risk of developing other health complications associated with PCOS.
  • Type 2 Diabetes: PCOS often leads to insulin resistance, where the body fails to use insulin effectively. This can raise blood glucose levels and increase the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes.
  • Cardiovascular disease: PCOS poses a risk of developing cardiovascular conditions, such as heart disease and stroke, in women. This is caused by a combination of factors, like insulin resistance, hypertension, high cholesterol, and elevated androgen levels, all of which are common in PCOS patients.
  • Endometrial cancer: The irregular menstrual cycles common in PCOS can lead to endometrial hyperplasia, where the lining of the uterus becomes too thick. This condition can increase the risk of endometrial cancer if not monitored and managed properly.
  • Depression and mood swings: The hormonal imbalances in PCOS can also affect mental health, leading to depression, anxiety, and mood swings. The psychosocial burdens of dealing with chronic symptoms like weight gain, infertility, and visible changes in appearance (such as acne and excess hair) can also contribute to mental health issues.

What are ways to manage PCOS?

Your healthcare provider can help tailor your PCOS management plan based on your symptoms, medical history, other existing health conditions, and your pregnancy intentions. Your options may involve medications, lifestyle adjustments, or a combination of both.

If you don’t plan on getting pregnant, solutions may involve the following:

  • Hormonal birth control
  • Medications to block androgens
  • Medicine to sensitise insulin
  • Lifestyle changes, such as a change in diet to manage insulin levels

If you are planning for pregnancy, your options may include:

  • Medicine for inducing ovulation
  • Surgery to restore ovulation and remove the tissue in your ovaries that produces androgen
  • In vitro fertilisation

How regular women’s health check-ups can help with PCOS

Regular women’s health check-ups are recommended in managing PCOS, as they facilitate early detection and symptom management, which can prevent further aggravation of the condition. Moreover, they enable healthcare professionals to monitor the progress of the disorder and adjust care plans accordingly to mitigate the risks of serious complications like Diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

For more women’s health advice, check out period pain symptoms you should not ignore.

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