Polycystic ovarian syndrome is common — and manageable

Last month on Saturday Night Live, when actress Keke Palmer announced that she was pregnant, it might not have seemed like a big deal to many people — but for women who have polycystic ovarian syndrome like Palmer does, it felt like a victory.

“Congrats, Keke,” wrote one Instagram user. “Those of us in the PCOS community know how much of a blessing it is to get pregnant with PCOS!”

Palmer is far from alone — according to the Office on Women’s Health, PCOS is a common health condition, affecting one in ten women of childbearing age. The condition, which is named after small cysts that form in the ovaries, is caused by an imbalance of hormones. It affects ovulation and can cause irregular menstrual periods, making it difficult to get pregnant.

Dr. Leslie Underwood, a physician with Lawrence OB-GYN Specialists, said we don’t know exactly what causes the hormone imbalances behind PCOS.

“We aren’t sure why the hormone imbalance that causes PCOS occurs,” she said. “We tend to see PCOS run in families, but there hasn’t been a specific genetic marker identified.”

Symptoms of PCOS

While having irregular or missed menstrual cycles is the most common symptom of PCOS, the condition looks different for everyone who has it. Symptoms may include:

• Elevated levels of male hormones (androgens)

• Excessive hair on the face, chin or body

• Acne

• Thinning scalp hair

• Weight gain or difficulty losing weight

• Insulin resistance

• Infertility

• Large ovaries or ovaries with numerous cysts

Underwood said there isn’t one single test to determine whether you have PCOS. Different variations of PCOS exist, making it difficult to get an accurate diagnosis. Many of these symptoms are also indicative of other conditions, increasing the difficulty.

“Women often have a hard time voicing concerns to their provider,” Underwood said. “With different variations of PCOS that exist and many of these symptoms being indicative of other conditions, it can be difficult to diagnose.”

Your doctor will talk with you about your medical history, perform a physical exam and discuss your menstrual cycle patterns. You may also undergo a pelvic exam, pelvic ultrasound or lab tests to confirm the diagnosis, but they aren’t always necessary.

Living with PCOS

While there isn’t a cure for PCOS, its symptoms can be manageable. Talk with your doctor to determine the treatment plan that’s right for you.

“We focus on treating the symptoms, which are different for everyone,” Underwood said. “There are medications we use to help with hair growth, insulin resistance, irregular cycles, acne and infertility. We personalize treatment based on each patient’s goals.”

Lifestyle changes may also be part of a treatment plan. These may include eating a healthier diet and exercising more often, which may lead to weight loss and a reduction in symptoms.

PCOS and pregnancy

Though it’s one of the most common causes of infertility in women, having PCOS doesn’t mean that you can’t get pregnant.

“Ovulation is less predictable in women who have PCOS, which makes it harder to find the fertility window in their cycle,” Underwood said. “We find that they tend to respond very well to ovulation induction medications, such as Clomid and Femara, which are inexpensive and have low risks.”

When you do become pregnant, make sure you get regular prenatal care. PCOS can cause problems during pregnancy for both mothers and babies, including higher rates of gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia, and could increase the likelihood that a C-section is necessary.

It’s important to remember that while PCOS is treatable, it isn’t yet curable.

“While PCOS never completely resolves, we can see improvement in certain symptoms with lifestyle changes. Many women will begin to ovulate spontaneously with a 10-15% decrease in weight,” Underwood said.

If you’re concerned that you might have PCOS, be an advocate for yourself and make an appointment to talk with your primary care provider or OB-GYN.

— Autumn Bishop is the marketing manager and content strategist at LMH Health, which is a major sponsor of the Journal-World’s Health section.


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