What is polycystic ovarian syndrome?

We discuss what polycystic ovarian syndrome is and the impact it can have on health and fertility.

With as many as one in five women experiencing polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) you’ve probably heard of the condition, but what is it exactly? How does it impact on your health and fertility?

What is it?

In simple terms, PCOS is a hormone disorder that can affect ovarian function and, in turn, fertility. 

In a normal cycle of ovulation, hormones are sent like messengers from the pituitary gland in the brain to the ovaries to regulate the growth and release of eggs. 

In someone with PCOS this message is unbalanced and eggs may not develop as they should. In some women, the ovaries and any extra fat tissue in the body may be causing an imbalance of male hormones to circulate in the blood. These factors, and others, may inhibit a pregnancy from occurring.  

Symptoms

Dr David Molloy, Medical Director of Queensland Fertility Group, says a key feature of PCOS is absent or irregular cycles.
 
“That is part of the key to diagnosis. Women may also notice various hormonal symptoms due to the irregularity of their ovulation. It’s common to be concerned about your skin, with acne, hair growth or other male type hormonal effects, and 50 per cent of patients with PCOS are substantially overweight.”

lady with pill packet

Diagnosis

PCOS can be diagnosed through a series of blood tests that measure hormone levels, and often an ultrasound scan can detect cysts of the ovaries to aid the diagnosis.
 
According to Dr Molloy, young women are often prescribed the oral contraceptive pill to help manage the symptoms. 
 
“The pill can manage the symptoms if you don’t want to get pregnant - the hormone balance is better, skin is often better and you get the benefits of contraception and regular cycles.” 

What about conceiving?

But what about women with PCOS who do wish to conceive? Does this condition always mean a difficult journey towards conception?
 
Dr Molloy says there is no typical scenario. Treatment may involve diet and exercise alone, medication or assisted reproduction.
 
“It’s terribly variable. Some women with PCOS still have menstrual cycles and if they are young may get pregnant very easily. Others may require multiple attempts on IVF.”
 
Dr Molloy stresses that lifestyle changes are known to have a big impact on fertility outcomes for women with PCOS. He encourages all patients to seek and maintain a healthy weight – the best way to manage PCOS over a lifetime.
 
“[Being a healthy weight] minimises your risk of infertility and minimises the amount of fertility treatment that you might need.”
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