About Polycytic Ovary Syndrome

Overview

The ovaries are a critical part of the endocrine system, which is responsible for the production and release of chemicals called hormones. Slight perturbations in the endocrine system can cause the ovaries to produce elevated levels of hormones called androgens, leading to a myriad of effects on the human body. Excessive ovarian androgen production can lead to a condition known as polycystic ovary syndrome.

Identification

Polycystic ovary syndrome gets its name from the characteristic cysts (fluid-filled sacs) that appear on the ovaries. As the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) explains, these cysts are the result of abnormally high levels of a kind of hormone called androgens. Elevated androgen levels interfere with ovulation, causing the ovaries to have trouble releasing eggs.

Symptoms

The Mayo Clinic explains that one of the main symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome is an irregular menstrual cycle, though the exact manifestation can vary from patient to patient. This disease can cause women to have an unusually long period of time in between menstruation (more than 35 days) or go for four or more months without menstruating. Elevated levels of androgens can cause hirsutism (abnormal development of body or facial hair) as well as acne and male-pattern baldness.

Causes

The Mayo Clinic explains that polycystic ovary syndrome can be a result of a problem with the pituitary. The pituitary gland makes a hormone called luteinizing hormone, which stimulates androgen production by the ovaries. Consequently, elevated levels of luteinizing hormone can cause the ovaries to produce abnormally high amounts of androgens. Physicians aren’t sure what causes this pituitary abnormality, but research suggests that obesity and elevated levels of insulin can play a role. There appears to be a genetic component as well, because women with this condition often have relatives with similar symptoms. Finally, there is some evidence that elevated levels of androgens during fetal development can play a role.

Diagnosis

Polycystic ovary syndrome is often diagnosed when multiple cysts on the ovaries are detected, either during a physical exam or via ultrasound. However, not all women with ovarian cysts have polycystic ovary syndrome, and some women with this condition do not have noticeable ovarian cysts. As a result, doctors will also measure the blood levels of androgens and will rule out other conditions that can lead to hormonal imbalances (such as a tumor in the pituitary) before making the diagnosis.

Treatment

Medline explains that polycystic ovary syndrome is commonly treated with birth control pills, which help inhibit the production of androgens by the ovaries. Women who wish to become pregnant can be treated with the medication clomiphene citrate, which increases the levels of another hormone (called follicle stimulating hormone). Elevated levels of this hormone help the ovaries release a mature egg. Women with high levels of insulin can take the medication glucophage, which decreases insulin resistance and can help relieve the symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome. Obese women with this condition can also benefit from losing weight.

About this Author

Adam Cloe has been published in various scientific journals. He is an M.D./Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. He has a Bachelor of Arts in biochemistry from Boston University, where he won an award for excellence in undergraduate science writing.