Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): What You Need to Know

During various stages of a woman’s life, changing hormone levels can bring about other unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms. However, if these symptoms are due to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), they are not simply a phase—but a medical condition that needs to be treated and managed.

PCOS causes a hormonal imbalance caused by the ovaries that affects up to 15% of women in their reproductive years. In fact, most women become diagnosed with PCOS in their 20s or 30s, and its main symptoms include irregular menstrual periods, excess male-pattern hair growth, acne, and male-pattern baldness.

The word “polycystic” refers to the small, numerous small cysts (fluid-filled sacs) that form in the ovaries in PCOS. However, not all women with PCOS develop ovary cysts. PCOS affects the ovaries, which produce the female hormone estrogen and progesterone that regulate menstrual cycles, as well as low levels of the male hormones called androgens. Each month, the ovaries release an egg during ovulation under the effect of two hormones, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). When the ovaries do not produce enough hormones needed to ovulate, they can develop small cysts. In turn; the cysts can start producing more androgens, resulting in a hormonal imbalance.

What Causes of PCOS?

While the exact causes of PCOS are still poorly understood, scientific research has shown a strong association between PCOS and insulin resistance, which can increase androgen levels. Moreover, research studies have demonstrated that there are some genetic factors significantly linked to PCOS. Sometimes, PCOS runs in families and it is not unusual for a mother and daughter or sisters to have PCOS.

What are PCOS Symptoms?

In addition to ovary cysts, some of the main symptoms of PCOS include the following:

Irregular menstrual periods – skipped periods, not having a period for months at a time, or very light periods.

Abnormal or excessive hair growth – also called hirsutism, and involves male-pattern hair growth, such as excessive facial hair and dense hair growth on the arms, chest, and abdomen.

Acne and oily skin – these symptoms specifically affect the skin on the face, back, and chest.

Weight gain – most women affected by PCOS are overweight or obese, and experience difficulty losing weight.

Dark skin patches – also known as acanthosis nigricans, this symptom involves dark-coloured patches of skin appearing on the skin of the neck, armpits, and groin.

Thinning hair – increased levels of androgens often result in thinning of scalp hair, and sometimes, male-pattern baldness.

Infertility – the hormonal imbalance of PCOS often leads to reduced ovulation and fertility issues.

How is PCOS Diagnosed?

Typically, your physician will ask you about your medical history, perform a physical (pelvic) exam, and may run some blood tests or perform an ultrasound to diagnose PCOS.

  • A pelvic exam is used to examine the ovaries and other parts of the reproductive system
  • A blood test is used to measure the hormonal levels as well as insulin, cholesterol, and other blood fats (triglycerides)
  • An ultrasound is used to check for abnormal follicles and cysts in the ovaries.

Hirsutism in PCOS

PCOS is one of the most common causes of hirsutism in women, resulting in excessive growth of terminal hair with male-type growth patterns.

This is because in PCOS, the male hormones produced by ovaries act on hair follicles and cause them to stimulate hair production, resulting in terminal hair growth on body regions which normally do not produce hair.

Temporary hair removal methods

The treatment for excess hair secondary to PCOS usually involves cosmetic and medical treatments, or a combination of both. Medical treatments for PCOS usually include prescribed medications to treat the hormonal imbalance. In addition, cosmetic treatment for hirsutism in PCOS often involves temporary and permanent hair removal methods.

Here are some of the most common temporary hair removal methods:

  • Plucking. This is a quick and convenient hair removal method that involves removing hair using tweezers. The effects last for several days, and the process needs to be repeated regularly. Using tweezers for plucking hair can be convenient for plucking stray hairs, but is not optimal for removing large areas of hair growth.
  • Shaving. Shaving with a razor is another quick hair removal method, but it also needs to be repeated regularly as it merely removes hair from the surface. Moreover, it can cause ingrown hair and skin irritation.
  • Waxing. Waxing can remove large patches of hair by applying warm wax on the skin in the direction of hair growth and then pulling the wax in the opposite direction. The process is painful and may result in redness, burns, and stripping of skin along with hairs, if not done properly.
  • Laser hair removal. This technique utilises light energy to heat and damage hair follicles, thereby disrupting hair growth. The results can last several months; however, this method is most effective for dark hair growing on lighter-coloured skin.

Permanent hair removal

  • Electrolysis. This is the only permanent hair removal method approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Agency (FDA). It involves delivering a very small electrical current to each individual hair follicle, which creates a chemical reaction that destroys the stem cells responsible for hair growth.

Electrolysis is the only hair removal method that produces life-long results. Unlike laser hair removal, it is highly effective for all hair types and colours, as well as for all shades of skin. If you’d like to learn more about how electrolysis work, please visit our About Electrolysis page.

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