When an otherwise healthy young woman has irregular or infrequent periods, she likely has a hormone imbalance. One of the most common hormonal abnormalities is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).
About 10% of women of childbearing age are diagnosed with PCOS. In addition to irregular menstrual cycles, the condition is characterized by elevated levels of insulin and male hormone (androgen), which may cause acne or excess facial and body hair.
Effects of PCOS on the Female Body
Women with PCOS have enlarged ovaries that contain multiple small cysts, and there is a miscommunication between the brain and the ovaries. As a result, women with PCOS rarely ovulate on their own, which often leads to infertility. But most women with PCOS can still get pregnant with proper treatment.
Diagnosing Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
Back in the 1930s, the typical picture of PCOS was an overweight or obese woman who had no periods, acne and excess hair growth. Now we know that the spectrum of women with this condition is much broader. They can be obese or thin, they can have acne and hair growth or neither. In fact, symptoms vary widely and can be subtle, which can make diagnosis more difficult.
PCOS is usually diagnosed by getting a complete history, running lab tests to check hormone levels, and performing an ultrasound. Oftentimes, ovaries will appear “polycystic” on the ultrasound, which is described as a “string of pearls” appearance.
PCOS is diagnosed by exclusion. Other conditions can mimic PCOS, but are actually caused by something else and are treated differently. Your doctor will rule out these causes and determine if you truly have PCOS or another issue. Mimicking conditions may include:
- Thyroid abnormalities
- High prolactin levels
- Primary ovarian failure (which leads to premature menopause)
- A tumor in the ovary or adrenal gland
Left untreated, PCOS can not only contribute to infertility, it may also lead to other health problems, including diabetes and liver inflammation, as well as endometrial cancer and cardiovascular disease.
How to Treat PCOS
If you’re trying to become pregnant, treatment may include ovulation-inducing medications such as Clomid or Letrozole. Sometimes, drugs like Metformin that lower insulin levels in the blood can also be helpful. For women who are not interested in becoming pregnant, taking hormonal birth control is the easiest way to regulate your periods.
While being overweight is not always a sign of PCOS, obesity can worsen the condition’s complications, so losing weight is highly recommended. For obese patients, losing 10% of their body weight may “reset” hormone and insulin levels, and allow for spontaneous regular cycles and ovulation. A healthy diet and regular exercise, especially aerobic exercise, will get you started on the right track.
Get Help from Your Fertility Experts
If you are experiencing irregular periods and having trouble getting pregnant, call us at 502.897.2144 or email us for a consultation. We have the specialized expertise to determine whether it’s PCOS or something else.