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Women’s Health: What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?

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Women’s Health: What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?

Woman with menstrual pain is holding her aching belly - isolated on white background

Polycystic ovary syndrome is a condition that affects women by altering the levels of hormones in your body, resulting in problems affecting many body systems. Most women that are diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, generally produce excess male sex hormones (androgens), a condition called hyperandrogenism. The typical patient that has too many of these male hormones can often have  excessive body hair growth (hirsutism), acne, and male pattern baldness, but that is not true in all cases.

Hyperandrogenism and abnormal levels of other sex hormones often prevents normal ovulation and regular menstrual periods, leading to difficulty conceiving a child (subfertility) or a complete inability to conceive (infertility). Due to irregular and infrequent menstruation and hormone abnormalities, affected women have an increased risk of cancer of the uterine lining (endometrial cancer).

Polycystic ovary syndrome generally includes multiple cysts in each ovary that can be seen with medical imaging. These cysts are small, immature ovarian follicles. Normally, ovarian follicles contain egg cells, which are released during ovulation. In polycystic ovary syndrome, abnormal hormone levels prevent follicles from growing and maturing to release egg cells. Instead, these immature follicles accumulate in the ovaries. Affected women can have 12 or more of these follicles. The number of these follicles usually decreases with age.

The causes of polycystic ovary syndrome are complex. This condition results from a combination of genetic, health, and lifestyle factors, some of which have not been identified. Common variations in several genes have been associated with the risk of developing polycystic ovary syndrome. Because they are common, these variations can be present in people with polycystic ovary syndrome and in those without. It is the combination of these changes that helps determine a woman’s likelihood of developing the disease.

Polycystic ovary syndrome does not have a clear pattern of inheritance, it is estimated that 20 to 40 percent of women with polycystic ovary syndrome have an affected mother or sister. This increased familial risk is likely due in part to shared genetic factors, but lifestyle influences that are shared by members of a family likely also play a role.


Talk to your doctor if you are interested in learning more about polycystic ovary syndrome.


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