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Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)

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Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is indicated by many small cysts in the ovaries. Health care professionals may also call it polycystic ovary disease, polycystic ovaries, Stein-Leventhal syndrome, or polyfollicular ovarian disease.

PCOS affects about 5 percent to 10 percent of women of childbearing age and occurs among all races and nationalities. It is the most common hormonal disorder among women of reproductive age and is a leading cause of infertility. It is estimated that as many as 30% of women have some characteristics of the syndrome.

The ovaries of women with PCOS produce higher than normal amounts of androgens (male hormones) which can interfere with the development and release of eggs. Normally when an egg matures, the follicle (sac within the ovary that contains eggs) releases the egg so it can travel to the uterus for fertilization. With PCOS, the eggs in these follicles may not mature or in some case egg maturation is altered. Instead of being released during the menstrual cycle, the follicles build up in the ovaries and form cysts. Because they are not ovulating and releasing an egg each month it is common for women with PCOS to have irregular or missed periods.

What Causes PCOS?

The exact cause of PCOS is unknown. Polycystic ovarian syndrome is called a syndrome rather than a disease because it has many possible causes or characteristics, rather than one known cause. Although the ovaries of women with this syndrome contain a number of small cysts, women without PCOS may also have a similar number of cysts. For this reason, researchers believe the cysts themselves may not be causing the problem.

It is believed the leading cause of PCOS could be insulin resistance. Women with PCOS are often found to have a malfunction of insulin production, formation, or action. Too much insulin signals the ovaries to release higher-than-normal levels of androgens. Elevated insulin levels are unhealthy and may eventually increase your risk not only for infertility but also for diabetes, certain cancers, and heart disease.

PCOS may also have a genetic predisposition and run in families. However, there is not yet enough scientific evidence to prove the condition is inherited.

If you have PCOS-related infertility it is probably due to the inability of the ovaries to release an egg, or the ovaries are releasing eggs that are not fully developed. However, not all women with PCOS have difficulty becoming pregnant.

Find out more about PCOS:

  • PCOS: Symptoms
  • PCOS: Diagnosis & Treatment
  • PCOS & Pregnancy