What is polycystic ovary syndrome?

Feb. 26, 2019
Two women jog in a park
Irregular periods and trouble losing weight could be signs of polycystic ovary syndrome. Photo by Getty Images.

If you have irregular periods, excess facial hair and find it difficult to lose weight, you might be one of the 5-10% of adult women with polycystic ovary syndrome, also known as PCOS. But the condition can be confusing and sometimes challenging to diagnose.

Dr. Mary Bowman, an OB/GYN with UCHealth Women’s Care Clinics in Steamboat Springs and Craig, outlines what you need to know about polycystic ovary syndrome.

The basics of PCOS

Hormone imbalances cause polycystic ovary syndrome. All women make small amounts of androgens or “male hormones,” but women with PCOS make more androgens than the average woman. That can prevent ovulation and can result in hirsutism, commonly referred to as excess facial hair, and acne.

“There’s a big genetic component,” Bowman said. “If a woman has polycystic ovaries, her first-degree relatives have a 20-25% chance of also having it.”

But often there isn’t an obvious cause.

“That’s something that’s hard for people,” Bowman said. “They want to understand, ‘Why do I have this?’ But it’s often just bad luck.”

What is polycystic ovary syndrome answered by Dr. Mary Bowman, an OB-GYN at UCHealth Women's Care Clinic in Steamboat Springs.
Dr. Mary Bowman is an OB/GYN with UCHealth Women’s Clinics in Steamboat Springs and Craig. Photo by UCHealth.

Making a PCOS diagnosis

Women with polycystic ovary syndrome typically have at least two of the three main symptoms: irregular periods, high levels of androgens and cysts in the ovaries. An ultrasound can show multiple small ovarian cysts, while high levels of androgens are confirmed with a blood test or physical signs such as excess hair growth or acne.

“If someone doesn’t have an elevated testosterone level, they most likely don’t have polycystic ovary syndrome,” Bowman said.

Obesity can be another symptom, but not all women with the condition are overweight. Irregular periods don’t always point to polycystic ovaries but may relate to ovulatory dysfunctions.

Symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome often develop when menstruation begins, but the condition can be especially difficult to diagnose in teens.

“Adolescents already have irregular menses and you can’t use ultrasound for adolescents as their ovaries can naturally look polycystic,” Bowman said. “It can take a little while to make a diagnosis. If a teen has a workup that doesn’t reflect polycystic ovary syndrome, but still has irregular periods, or acne and weight issues, then she should be reevaluated.”

Treatment Options

PCOS puts women at risk for additional health issues, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, mood disorders and sleep apnea, so it’s important to treat. A healthy diet and regular exercise are the first lines of treatment, and often, a doctor will recommend losing weight.

“It doesn’t take that much weight to make a difference. Losing five to ten percent of your weight can help restore ovulatory function,” Bowman said. “But it can be really, really hard to do.”

Bowman recommends building a support system – a dietitian, a physical trainer and friends – to help meet weight-loss goals.

An oral contraceptive provides reliable birth control and addresses hormonal imbalance. “It actually sops up extra testosterone, which helps with acne and excess hair growth,” Bowman said.

Women who can’t take birth control pills should take progesterone to protect the uterus from the excess estrogen that can increase the risk of uterine cancer. Other medications can help address other symptoms, including insulin resistance, acne, excess hair and mood disorders.

Women with polycystic ovaries, who are trying to get pregnant, often run into challenges. A health care provider can advise individualized therapy, but other options, such as in vitro fertilization, may be necessary.

“The eggs that are in their ovaries are perfectly good eggs,” Bowman said. “But they just don’t mature and pop out as they should.”

When helping women navigate treatment options, Bowman emphasizes that the disorder is not their fault.

“They just have it. It’s no fault, no foul,” Bowman said. “We’re given whatever we’re given, and we have to work with that and determine what we can do to be our best self, our healthiest self.”


This article first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Oct. 1, 2018.

About the author

Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office writing and analyzing data. She blogs about writing and science at susancunninghambooks.com.