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Could Your Irregular Periods and Other Symptoms Be Related to Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

PCOS causes imbalances to your hormones which can affect fertility

Polycystic ovary syndrome

Many women brush off irregular periods as nothing more than a nuisance. However, irregular or missed periods are a common symptom of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). PCOS is the most common endocrine disorder among women of childbearing age and can cause of infertility.

“Many women don’t know they have PCOS,” says gynecologist Emily Brophy, MD, with Lehigh Valley Physician Group (LVPG) Obstetrics and Gynecology. “However, there are treatment options available, so it’s important to express any concerns you have to your clinician.”

What is polycystic ovary syndrome?

PCOS is most common among women between the ages of 17 and 44. It occurs when your reproductive hormones are unbalanced, which can lead to problems with your ovaries. The hormones affected by PCOS include:

  • Androgen – This is generally thought of as a male sex hormone but is found in small amounts in women. While it’s not always necessary to have a laboratory value for these elevated levels, PCOS can cause higher levels of androgen to be produced.
  • Insulin – Many women with PCOS are insulin resistant, which means their body can’t manage insulin well and they could develop type 2 diabetes.

There is no cause of PCOS, but you may be more likely to have PCOS if your mother or sister has it. Other risk factors for PCOS include insulin resistance and obesity.

“Women with PCOS are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems and uterine cancer. It also can impact your ability to become pregnant. In many cases, PCOS can be easy to treat.” - Emily Brophy, MD

Dr. Brophy says that many symptoms of PCOS are mild and can be overlooked. Some of the common symptoms include:

  • Irregular, missed or light periods
  • Acne
  • Weight gain around your midsection
  • Hair loss  
  • Excess body hair on your chest, face or back

There are several ways to diagnose PCOS. Your doctor may recommend an ultrasound to check your ovaries and may consider blood tests.

What can you do?

The good news is that PCOS can be treated. “There are a number of ways we can treat PCOS depending on your fertility goals, age, overall health and the severity of your symptoms,” Dr. Brophy says.

If you plan to become pregnant, potential treatment options include:

  • Lifestyle modifications – Eating a healthy diet and getting more physical activity can help reduce symptoms, especially if you are overweight. Sometimes weight loss of only two to five pounds can help your ovaries ovulate normally again.
  • Medications to cause ovulation – There are medications available to help ovaries release eggs normally, but they can cause abdominal bloating and pelvic pain. These medications also have been associated with a slight increased chance for a multiple birth (twins or more).

If you do not plan to become pregnant, treatment options may include:

  • Birth control pills – In addition to preventing pregnancy, birth control pills can help you regulate your menstrual cycle and reduce acne by lowering androgen levels.
  • Diabetes medication – If you have insulin resistance, your doctor may recommend medication. This could help reduce androgen levels, slow hair growth and regulate your menstrual cycle.
  • Lifestyle modifications – Making sure you have a healthy diet and get enough physical activity can help you manage symptoms.

Dr. Brophy says that while symptoms associated with PCOS seem mild, the condition can lead to serious health conditions if left untreated. “Women with PCOS are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems and uterine cancer. It also can impact your ability to become pregnant,” she says.

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