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Duke Medicine: The private anguish of PCOS

Affecting 6 to 10 percent of women of reproductive age, PCOS is usually diagnosed by a physician when a woman is unsuccessful in getting pregnant. But thanks to increasing public awareness, more women now seek help when experiencing the syndrome's other symptoms.

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Sarah Lindenfeld Hall

A 29-year-old woman -- let's call her Claire -- gazes unhappily at her reflection as she stands in front of the mirror. Reaching up to pinch the unsightly roll of fat that surrounds her midsection, she notices that the hair on her forearms, always unusually heavy, is looking thicker and darker than ever. The same thing seems to be happening to the hairs on her chin.

An even more pressing worry is the fact that she's missed her period for several months, even though she knows she couldn't possibly be pregnant. What, she wonders, is happening to her?

According to Dr. Ann Brown, an endocrinologist at Duke University Medical Center, Claire's problems could be symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that places women at risk for infertility, diabetes, and possibly heart disease.

Symptoms include excess facial and body hair and irregular menstrual periods that may only come three to six times a year. Obesity, particularly in the trunk area, male pattern balding on the scalp, darkening of the skin around the neck, and acne are other red flags.

Affecting 6 to 10 percent of women of reproductive age, PCOS is usually diagnosed by a physician when the woman is unsuccessful in getting pregnant. Thanks to increasing public awareness about PCOS, more women now seek help when experiencing the syndrome's other symptoms.

Because these symptoms can occur with other disorders, however, PCOS can be difficult to diagnose. That makes it not only a distressing condition, but a lonely and confusing one.

"Many of my patients say they've had a sense that something was wrong with them for many years, but were told that there's nothing that could be done for them," says Brown.

No one knows the precise cause of PCOS, though some doctors believe that an abnormally high level of insulin resistance -- a precursor to diabetes -- might cause a disruption in reproductive hormones, leading to infertility.

Women with PCOS who do manage to conceive are more likely to develop gestational diabetes. They are also at risk for early-onset diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels (either or both of which often precede heart disease), and endometrial cancer.

Many women with PCOS have high levels of male hormones, such as testosterone, in addition to insulin resistance.

"What we now think is happening is that the high levels of insulin are stimulating the ovaries to produce testosterone," says Brown. This creates the hormonal imbalance and symptoms associated with PCOS and symptoms such as acne and and excess hair growth.

Brown's diagnostic workup for PCOS includes a modified glucose tolerance test -- a sort of metabolic stress test -- in which insulin and glucose levels are drawn after fasting and again after the patient drinks a glucose-rich solution. The higher the insulin level for any given glucose value, the more insulin-resistant the patient will be.

Lipids are also checked, since people with insulin resistance may have high triglycerides and low HDL. Brown frequently draws liver tests, since many women with PCOS may have elevated levels due to fatty infiltration of the liver.

For more on treatments and long-term management of PCOS, read the full article on DukeHealth.org's Health Library.

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