Your Guide to PCOS: What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?
This article was medically fact-checked by Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist Dr. Shree Datta.
Ever experienced intense cramping, unusually heavy menstrual bleeding or cramps that have been so intense they’ve left you unable to attend work or school? PCOS – or Polycystic Ovary Syndrome may be the culprit—it affects 8-20% of menstruators worldwide. Not only does PCOS cause periods so painful they interrupt your daily life, but it is also one of the leading causes of infertility if left unchecked.
September is PCOS Awareness Month, so we’re shining a light on a syndrome that affects many and yet can be very tricky to diagnose.
What Is PCOS?
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is caused by a hormone imbalance. It can develop at the onset of puberty, or later in your reproductive life. The exact cause isn’t known, although it has been linked to excessive insulin or androgen (an XY-linked hormone) and may be hereditary.
That means that while some families don’t like to discuss their intimate health, it’s important to talk to others in your family about their menstruation experiences.
If it seems like everyone in your family has a similarly painful period, that’s an important indicator to let your doctor know about.
What Are The Symptoms of PCOS?
Some of the symptoms of PCOS can seem contradictory, as it can cause both infrequent periods or prolonged, heavy bleeding.
Some other symptoms are:
- Unwanted facial/body hair (caused by excess androgen) while thinning of hair on head toward middle age
- Weight gain (PCOS can lead to complications with Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease)
- Pelvic pain
- Cysts on ovaries that may interrupt ovulation and lead to infertility
How Is PCOS Diagnosed And Treated?
Unfortunately, there is no one diagnosis or treatment for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.
To determine if you have PCOS, your doctor may give you a pelvic exam and vaginal ultrasound to look at the thickness of your uterine lining and to look for cysts. You may also have a blood test to measure hormone levels.
Treatment is limited to individual symptoms. Hormonal birth control pills are often used to regulate your cycle and stop unwanted hair growth, while other medication may be prescribed to stimulate your ovaries if you’re trying to conceive.
Your doctor may also prescribe lifestyle changes like a low-calorie diet and increased activity, as losing weight can improve your condition and increase the effectiveness of medication you’re taking for PCOS.
There are other options for managing pain related to PCOS, but you shouldn’t try to self-diagnose or self-medicate. Even taking ordinary NSAIDS like ibuprofen incorrectly can have other negative effects on your body.
Pregnancy & PCOS
Because PCOS can be accompanied by irregular ovulation, people with PCOS might have difficulty with conception. But it’s not impossible! There are treatments available to regulate or induce ovulation is undertaken.
Those with PCOS may, however, be at higher risk for miscarriage and other complications due to some of the interconnected conditions (like diabetes), so it’s important to discuss your plans for future pregnancy with a doctor when getting checked for symptoms you believe may be PCOS.
What To Do If You Think You Have PCOS
If you’re suffering from any of the symptoms above, it’s important to talk to your care provider. Unfortunately, getting a diagnosis and care for PCOS is, like many gynaecological matters, easier said than done.
Many doctors who don’t know a lot about this condition might think you’re exaggerating your symptoms, or that you just “have to live with it.”
If your GP is dismissive of your problem, seek a gynaecologist, and if possible, one that has a specialization or experience with PCOS. That’s the sort of thing that their office should be able to tell you over the phone before you even set your appointment!
Before your appointment, make sure to note down the issues you want to bring up, and keep handy information about your cycles such as your most recent one and average length. There are plenty of apps that can help!
Facts checked by:
Dr. Shree Datta
Dr. Shree Datta is a Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist in London, specialising in women’s health including all menstrual problems such as fibroids and endometriosis. Dr. Shree is a keen advocate for patient choice, having written numerous articles and books to promote patient and clinician information. Her vision resonates with INTIMINA, with the common goals of demystifying periods and delivering the best possible care to her patients
Lane Baumeister is an internationally-based Canadian writer with several years’ experience creating educational and entertaining articles that discuss intimate health and sexual well-being. When not waxing profound about menstruation, she devotes herself to enjoying extremely good food and equally bad movies.