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Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome Association, Inc.

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What is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)?

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is the most common female endocrine disorder, affecting approximately 5%-10% of all females. PCOS is a hormonal disorder that involves multiple organ systems within the body, and is believed to be fundamentally caused by insensitivity to the hormone insulin. It can be diagnosed in all phases of life - in girls as young as 8-9 years of age, up through post-menopause. Although PCOS is one of the leading causes of infertility, the reproductive aspects of the disorder are secondary. PCOS is not limited to women of reproductive age or potential.

Common symptoms of PCOS include:

  • irregular or no menstrual periods (for women of reproductive age)
  • irregular ovulation, with or without monthly bleeding
  • acne
  • excess hair growth on the face and body
  • thinning scalp hair
  • accumulation of unruptured follicles on the periphery of the ovaries (mislabeled as "cysts", often called polycystic ovaries)

It is not necessary to have all of these symptoms to have PCOS. In fact it is not necessary to have "polycystic ovaries" to have PCOS. PCOS manifests itself differently in each woman.

In addition to the above, approximately 60% of women with PCOS have weight management issues which can lead to obesity with only normal caloric intake. Energy in the form of glucose (food) is stored right away as fat, instead of being made available for other functions within the body. This can lead to chronic fatigue and undernourishment, despite the fact that there is adequate food intake and even an appearance of overnourishment. However, it's important to note that 40% of women with PCOS are of normal weight, or even fall under a normal weight range.

There is no cure for PCOS, but it can be successfully managed through diet, exercise, and in some cases medical intervention. Management of PCOS is essential, as unmanaged PCOS can progress to diabetes, and can also lead to certain forms of cancer if unaddressed. Proper management of PCOS often eliminates all symptoms. Some women with managed PCOS are among the healthiest within the population because of their lifestyle choices.

PCOS has also been called Stein-Leventhal Syndrome, historically. The name "polycystic ovarian syndrome" or "polycystic ovary syndrome" is a poor descriptor of the condition, however attempts to arrive at a consensus on renaming the condition have failed so far.

Myths about PCOS:

Women with PCOS cannot have children. FALSE

Women who have had children cannot have PCOS. FALSE

Hysterectomy cures PCOS. FALSE

A woman must have polycystic ovaries to be diagnosed with PCOS. FALSE

A women who has polycystic ovaries definitely has PCOS. FALSE

Birth control pills cure PCOS. FALSE

If a woman doesn't want to have children (or more children), she I doesn't have to worry about PCOS management. FALSE

If a woman passes a glucose tolerance test, she doesn't have insulin resistance or PCOS. FALSE