Polycystic ovary syndrome is a hormonal disorder that results in the abnormal growth of cysts in the ovaries and other problems.
A FEW months ago, I wrote about women who have problems with excessive body and facial hair, or hirsutism. I have seen many young women walk through my door with this problem – and the most common reason for it is a condition called Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). Unfortunately, not many women know about PCOS and how it can affect them. Excessive hairiness is merely one of the symptoms of this condition, which can cause some serious health problems later down the road.
In simple terms, polycystic ovary syndrome means a condition where there are many cysts (abnormal growths) developing in the ovaries. It is sometimes also called the Stein- Leventhal syndrome. PCOS is a hormonal disorder, where the hormones that regulate ovulation (such as oestrogen, testosterone and luteinising hormone) become imbalanced. This causes many strange things to happen in the body – besides the growth of multiple cysts, the ovaries also become enlarged and start producing more male sex hormones. The elevated male hormones can cause distressing symptoms like acne, extra facial and body hair, and weight gain. Ironically, a woman will also have thinning hair on her scalp.
Doctors believe that about one in 10 women (of childbearing age) have PCOS. Even young girls can develop PCOS too, as I have had mothers bring their 11- and 12-year-old girls to me with this problem. Irregular menses is one of the most obvious signs of PCOS. My patients with PCOS have their menses fewer than nine times a year – some don’t even menstruate at all! Women with PCOS do not ovulate properly and are often infertile. In fact, many of them discover that they have PCOS only when they see the doctor about their infertility.
The out-of-balance hormones also cause the body to become less responsive to insulin. Diabetes is one of the chronic diseases that can arise as a complication of PCOS. Some other serious long-term effects of PCOS include endometrial cancer and heart disease. Endometrial cancer is a risk because the high levels of male sex hormones prevent the uterine lining from shedding every month. At the same time, the woman tends to have low HDL (“good” cholesterol), with high LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides, putting her at risk of heart disease and stroke.
There’s help for women with PCOS
The doctor will diagnose PCOS through a physical examination, blood tests and possibly a pelvic ultrasound. There is no cure for PCOS; however, your doctor will help you work out a treatment plan to help you reduce the unpleasant symptoms and prevent long-term problems. A treatment plan may include the following elements: Regular exercise – Do 30 minutes of physical activity every day, if possible. Walk, swim, go to the gym or participate in some form of sport that you enjoy. Exercise helps you lose weight, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduces your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Healthy diet – Eat lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans and wholegrains. Cut down on foods that are high in saturated fats, such as deep-fried foods and fatty meats. Losing weight is very important for women with PCOS, because it will help to get the hormones back in balance. Prescribed medications – Your doctor may prescribe birth control pills to regulate your hormones, so that your periods are more regular and you have less facial hair and acne. If you have insulin problems, you may also be given diabetes medications to control your blood sugar levels.
Home remedies – There are medicines or creams that can help to reduce acne, or hair removal methods (waxing, tweezing or shaving) to get rid of the excessive hair. However, these are short-term remedies; only hormone treatments are truly effective, although they take time. Fertility medication – If you are trying to get pregnant, your doctor may put you on a fertility treatment plan that includes drugs to stimulate ovulation.
Regular check-ups – You must see your doctor for the scheduled follow-up visits, so that he or she can make sure that the treatment is working well. You will also need regular tests to check for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. You should only take medications as prescribed by your doctor, particularly medications that control your hormones. There are some medications that cannot be taken if you are pregnant, or are planning to conceive.
PCOS is one of the most difficult conditions for women to deal with, as it affects them on the outside and causes serious health problems inside the body as well. Your doctor should be sympathetic towards your condition and teach you how to manage it properly. Don’t listen to people who try to convince you that PCOS is merely a “cosmetic” problem. PCOS is a serious health condition that can lead to chronic diseases. If you have PCOS, you are not alone – there is help available.
The Star Newspaper, Sunday May 18, 2008
By BR NOR ASHIKIN MOKHTAR