Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a health condition where a woman's sex hormones go off balance, making excess androgens, which is commonly known as male hormones, although women make them too.(To learn more about hormone imbalance, read Hormone Imbalance In Men And Women.)
A woman with high levels of androgen can experience:
- Issues with her menstrual cycle that can cause irregularities and missed periods
- Excess facial and bodily hair that can become dark and thick
- Hair thinning on the scalp (male-pattern baldness)
- A deeper voice
- Reduced breast size
- An enlarged clitoris
- Fertility issues
- Increased acne
- A resistance to insulin, causing a blood sugars to rise, which increases the risk of diabetes
Many women who experience polycystic ovary syndrome will also experience small cysts that grow on their ovaries. These cysts are not considered harmful and are not to be confused with ovarian cysts that occur during a woman's menstrual cycle, which are called functional cysts.
PCOS And Ovarian Cysts
Ovarian cysts are small sacs filled with fluid that form on a woman's ovaries. Functional cysts are the most common form of ovarian cysts experience by women, but can also form due to polycystic ovary syndrome and are called polycystic ovaries. Ovarian cysts caused by PCOS are a result of matured eggs found within these sacs that are never released and can continue to grow and cause even more cysts.
In normal ovulation, a woman's eggs are released after maturation, causing the cyst to break open and release the egg down the fallopian tube to the uterus to be fertilized. Because the egg never matures due to PCOS, more cysts are formed without any eggs being released and the hormone, progesterone, is not made. This can lead to irregularities in a woman's menstrual cycle. Reduced progesterone compounded by an increase in the male hormone, androgen, prevent normal ovulation.
Other Forms Of Ovarian Cysts
While ovarian cysts caused by polycystic ovary syndrome are caused by issues with hormone imbalance, there are other types of ovarian cysts that can develop:
- Functional cysts can come in two forms: follicle and corpus luteum. Follicle cysts are similar to ovarian cysts caused by PCOS because they are formed when sacs don't release eggs. However, these types of cysts often disappear after a few months. Corpus luteum cysts are formed when a sac does not dissolve after releasing the egg, and tend to disappear after several weeks.
- Cystadenomas are formed from cells on the outer layer of the ovary. These cysts can become more painful as they grow and are filled with a thick, gel-like substance.
- Endometriomas cysts occur in women who have endometriosis. The cysts are formed due to the inner lining of the uterus that begins to grow outside of the uterus. This abnormal tissue growth can attach to the ovaries causing cysts that can become painful during intercourse or menstruation.
Causes Of PCOS
Doctors and experts do not know what triggers the hormone changes in women that causes polycystic ovary syndrome. However, studies have narrowed down the likely causes of PCOS:
- PCOS may be passed down through the family. Women with a mother or sister who suffer from PCOS are more likely to experience the health condition as well. This may be linked to a mutation in the genes, although further study is still required.
- PCOS can be the result of too much insulin. If a woman is resistant to insulin, it is likely that her body will produce more of the hormone to compensate, which might also increase androgen production.
- PCOS might be the result of exposure to androgens from fetal life. According to Mayo Clinic, the excessive exposure to androgens can cause normal genes to stop functioning properly. This can lead to abdominal fat distribution that is similar to a male, resulting in increased insulin resistance that can lead to PCOS. Further research is being conducted to determine the validity of this theory.
Treatment for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and Ovarian Cysts
Unfortunately, there is no cure for PCOS, but there are ways to manage it. Birth control pills can be used to help with irregularities in menstruation. Exercise and a healthy diet can help decrease the risk of diabetes, while helping with hormone imbalance and infertility. Different types of hair removal can help with unwanted hair around the face and body, or eflornithine cream can be used to reduce the growth of unwanted facial hair.
For ovarian cysts, a physician may opt to simply monitor cysts to see if they subside on their own. Surgery for ovarian cysts are required due to complications or if a woman is past menopause. Surgery for ovarian cysts can be performed through a laparoscopy or laparotomy.