An Overview of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common yet often overlooked medical condition in women of childbearing age that impacts both the reproductive system and metabolic health. Knowing the facts about PCOS and what you can do about it can make it easier to live with and prevent long-term complications.

View a normal versus polycystic ovary.

What Is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

PCOS affects approximately 10 percent of women of childbearing age making it the most common endocrine disorder in this stage of the lifecycle. PCOS is characterized by elevated androgen levels (male hormones like testosterone) in women resulting in an imbalance of sex hormones.

This hormone imbalance can affect ovulation by causing irregular, absent, or heavy menstrual periods. Because of this, PCOS is the leading cause of ovulatory infertility.

PCOS is also associated with insulin resistance and obesity. Having higher insulin levels can contribute to weight gain and difficulties losing weight. If insulin is not well controlled, it can lead to more serious health issues such as metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

No two women with PCOS have the same exact experience with it, but common issues associated with this disease include:

Learning more about these and other signs and symptoms of PCOS and how they can be treated will help you make changes that leave you feeling better emotionally and physically. Being aware of some potential risk factors is also important to know.

4 Things to Know About PCOS

1. It can be difficult to diagnose. It’s hard to identify PCOS based on symptoms alone since:

  • There is such a large number of symptoms associated with it.
  • Symptoms may appear alone or in combination.
  • Symptoms can vary in severity.
  • Symptoms can change.

These reasons may explain why you may have seen several different doctors who didn’t recognize the condition. If your primary care doctor does suspect PCOS, you will likely be referred to a reproductive endocrinologist who will review your symptoms and do more testing, such as hormone and other blood tests and perform an ultrasound of your ovaries.

PCOS is a condition of exclusion. Other conditions that cause similar symptoms need to be ruled out before making an accurate diagnosis.

2. It’s not about your ovaries. Despite the name polycystic ovary syndrome, women with PCOS don’t typically have cysts at all. Instead, tiny immature follicles surround the ovaries, appearing like a strand of pearls on an ultrasound. These follicles are the result (and not the cause) of an imbalance of sex hormones which inhibit follicles from maturing and being released for fertilization.

Many professionals feel the name PCOS is misleading and contributes to the challenge in getting more women diagnosed. A new name has been proposed to one that doesn’t focus so much on cysts or ovaries, but rather on the metabolic aspects women with the condition are likely to experience.

3. There is no cure. Unfortunately PCOS does not go away and there is not currently a cure. The good news is that it can be treated and managed with lifestyle changes, medications, and supplements.

4. Lifestyle changes are the primary treatment. While there is still a lot to learn including what causes PCOS, we do know that diet and lifestyle changes are the primary treatment approach. This includes eating a healthy diet that incorporates plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats.

taying active by doing some form of physical activity daily—like walking and weight training—is also critical. And getting enough sleep is important to keep insulin down and help with mood and energy.

If You’re Recently Diagnosed

Chances are if you were just diagnosed with PCOS you have a lot of emotions about it. PCOS is complex and the name alone is a lot to digest!

You may be feeling sad or scared that you were diagnosed with a medical condition. Perhaps you even feel validated that there really is something off with your body and that it is responsible for why you’ve been experiencing symptoms like weight gain or acne.

You may also feel overwhelmed with the information you were given and what to do about it. There is a lot of conflicting information on the internet regarding how to treat and manage PCOS (most of it not evidence-based) and that can cause confusion.

It’s important to give yourself time to adjust to the news and get more acquainted with the facts of your condition. Changes don’t have to be made immediately, even though it feels like they should. Here are a few suggestions as you take your next steps:

Learn All You Can

As mentioned, there’s a lot we don’t know about PCOS. But there is also a lot that we do know, including what you can do to feel your best. Spend some time researching your condition.

Be Committed to Your Treatment

You may be tempted to try things that have worked for other women with PCOS. But, remember, you are you. What’s right for your specific case will be determined during conversations with your doctor and other health professionals. And don’t be afraid to get more support, like working with a registered dietitian, nutritionist, or therapist.

Consider Certain Changes

The main treatment approach for managing PCOS is through diet and lifestyle. Eating well, getting more or better sleep, reducing stress, being physically active, and quitting smoking are just a few effective things you can do to feel better, improve symptoms, and prevent PCOS from getting worse.

A Word From Verywell

Getting a diagnosis of PCOS can certainly be scary. But, the good news is that this condition can be managed and its symptoms can get better. Knowledge is key! Knowing the facts about PCOS and having a good treatment team to support your lifestyle changes can make all the difference.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
  • Christopher, R et al. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. N Engl J Med 2016; 375:54-64.
  • Grassi A. PCOS: The Dietitian’s Guide. Luca Publishing. 2013, Bryn Mawr, PA.