Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is the most commonly occurring hormonal disorder in young girls and women of reproductive age, especially those between the ages of 18 and 44. It may even affect girls as young as 11 years old.
About one in every 10 to 15 women in the United States suffer from PCOS.
Lack of physical activity, obesity, overproduction of testosterone (a male sex hormone found in women in small quantities) and a family history of PCOS are the most common factors involved in this condition.
Insulin resistance is also a commonly cited cause for PCOS, as it is the main factor contributing to increased testosterone levels.
Insulin is a hormone naturally produced by the body to lower blood sugar. During insulin resistance, the insulin becomes ineffective in lowering the blood sugar and it can raise to dangerous levels.
This, in turn, triggers the body to produce more insulin. The cycle continues and ultimately causes a high blood insulin level.
PCOS is the most common cause of infertility among women.
The disorder causes anovulatory infertility, in which there is an absence of ovulation. Ovulation is the reproductive process in which the ovaries produce a mature egg every month that may, or may not, get fertilized by sperm.
There is no cure for PCOS. However, lifestyle changes like increased physical activity and weight loss can significantly control the symptoms.
Also, birth control pills, as well as other medications like metformin and clomiphene, are common treatments.
Women often turn to cosmetic procedures, such as laser, to minimize the physical symptoms of the condition like hirsutism.
Early Symptom Identification: A Growing Concern
Because PCOS symptoms are not particularly shocking on their own, women do not pay much attention to them, let alone associate them with each other and link them to a common hormonal problem.
As a result, many women only realize they have PCOS when they have trouble getting pregnant.
American PCOS patients of reproductive age spend about $4.36 billion annually on diagnostic procedures and subsequent medical care, according to a 2005 study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.
Out of this staggering total, the least amount of money (2 percent) is spent on diagnostic procedures, indicating that early diagnosis of PCOS is not only rare, but it could also play a huge role in minimizing the severity of the symptoms and the consequent amount of money spent treating it.
You may suffer all the symptoms of PCOS or a combination of a few. Here are some common signs and symptoms of PCOS that you should look out for.
1. Irregular Periods
A persistent irregular menstrual cycle is the most common symptom of PCOS.
The disorder triggers a testosterone-overload in the body. This excess testosterone leads to the growth of cysts in the ovaries. The cysts prevent the ovaries from releasing eggs, thereby obstructing menstruation.
It is considered normal to have irregular periods during the teenage years. While this may be true in some cases, it might also be an early indication of PCOS, especially when accompanied by other symptoms.
Irregular periods during teenage years are positively associated with PCOS and infertility in the future, according to a 2014 study published in Human Reproduction.
Furthermore, if irregular menstruation persists well into the late teens or beyond, this is an even stronger indication of PCOS.
2. Absence of Menstruation (Primary Amenorrhea)
This is a less common symptom of PCOS than irregular periods and secondary amenorrhea, a condition in which a woman on a normal cycle suddenly stops menstruating for 6 months or more.
Primary amenorrhea is a condition in which a girl does not start her period until she is between 16 and 18 years old. As mentioned above, a testosterone excess might interfere with the release of eggs from the ovaries, inhibiting menstruation completely.
While there are several disorders and physical deficiencies that may result in a lack of menstruation, it might also be an early symptom of PCOS.
3. Excessive Facial and Body Hair
Excessive hair growth on the face and body, known as hirsutism, is a side effect of testosterone overload and is one of the most common symptoms of PCOS.
The most common sites for this excess hair growth include the upper lip, the jaw and chin area, arms, legs, thighs, chest and stomach.
PCOS is the most common cause of hirsutism and accounts for three out of four cases of it, according to a 2012 study published in the American Family Physician.
Unwanted facial hair is a distressing condition to deal with. Furthermore, managing unwanted facial hair can be an extremely time-consuming and costly process.
4. Hair Thinning and Loss
Some of you might be losing a lot of hair while shampooing, or waking up to an alarming number of hair strands on your pillow in the morning.
Hair thinning and rapid hair loss is a common sign of a hormonal imbalance, especially PCOS.
PCOS triggers an overload of testosterone in the body. The overactive testosterone travels to the scalp and converts to its derivative dihydrotestosterone (DHT) when it interacts with the enzyme found in hair follicles.
The DHT then binds with the hair follicles and causes them to shrink. This slows down the hair’s growth process, causing it to become thinner and thinner.
This might also explain the hair’s weak and brittle nature, making it more susceptible to breakage.
If your acne has persisted into your 20s and beyond the age of 25, you might be suffering from PCOS.
Like hirsutism, this type of persistent acne is a result of a testosterone overload which stimulates oil production in the sebaceous glands.
PCOS-associated acne commonly occurs around the cheeks, chin, jaw line and the upper neck. It is more likely to develop in the form of hard bumps under the skin rather than visibly overt bumps.
They persist longer than regular acne and might flare up right before a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle.
They may be red in appearance and might often be accompanied by a painful white or yellowish head.
6. Obesity, Weight Gain and an Inability to Lose Weight
PCOS patients are not always obese, but they are usually not thin either. A woman who has PCOS is likely to have a slow metabolism and pack on more pounds than is considered normal for her height and body structure.
About 50 percent of women diagnosed with PCOS are either overweight or obese, and most of them have substantial abdominal fat, according to a 2002 study published in the International Journal of Obesity and Other Related Metabolic Disorders.
One of the most common symptoms of PCOS is an inability to lose weight. Despite sincere efforts, a woman who has PCOS will often struggle to shed even a pound or two.
If you notice your peers getting spectacular weight loss results following the same diet and workout routine as you, but you are still stuck where you began or lagging far behind, this might be a cause for concern.
7. High Blood Pressure
PCOS is a disorder that might present cardiovascular complications.
This becomes apparent when one considers its most common symptoms, such as insulin resistance, high blood pressure (hypertension) and obesity.
Hypertension is a commonly occurring symptom in PCOS patients, especially in women with an increased body mass index (BMI), according to a 2015 study published in The American Journal of Hypertension.
If you have high blood pressure, are overweight or obese, and exhibit other symptoms of PCOS, you might just be an undiagnosed patient.
8. Abnormal Skin Discoloration
PCOS may trigger a skin abnormality that causes brown or black thick patches, that usually appear in skin folds, such as neck folds, forehead, navel, armpits, breasts, between the thighs, around the groin region and occasionally on the elbows, knees and hands. This is called acanthosis nigricans.
Out of 30 patients with acanthosis nigricans, six were diagnosed with PCOS, according to a 2011 study published in the Indian Journal of Dermatology.
Insulin resistance or high insulin levels in PCOS patients is responsible for the appearance of thick, corrosive, and discolored skin on various parts of the body.
These patches may be accompanied by skin tags, tiny skin-colored growths that appear like warts and hang from the skin.
Out of 33 PCOS patients (18 to 32 years old), 68.75 percent reported having acanthosis nigricans, according to a 2004 study published in the Middle East Fertility Society Journal.
Stress is a by-product of any mental or physical illness. PCOS patients especially experience a lot of distress because of hirsutism.
Out of 81 PCOS patients, 32 suffered neurotic stress, 29 had high stress and 12 reported extremely high stress, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Reproduction and Infertility.
If you find yourself perpetually and even neurotically stressed out while simultaneously suffering from any PCOS symptoms, you might have undiagnosed PCOS.
Like stress, depression is another manifestation of psychological distress that goes hand-in-hand with any hormonal imbalance.
Women suffering from PCOS are rarely in high spirits owing to the various symptoms and their repercussions they have to deal with each day.
Subjects with PCOS reported increased levels of depression and anxiety, according to a 2011 study published in Human Reproduction.
Patients with higher BMIs are likely to report higher levels of anxiety and depression than those with lower BMIs, the study further notes.
If you find yourself perpetually depressed and also have other symptoms of PCOS, consult your doctor for diagnosis and treatment of PCOS or other underlying issues.