Links Search the Web Contents Contact Us

This page is intended to provide a basic knowledge about the medical condition known as "polycystic ovarian syndrome". It is also known as "polycystic ovarian disease" or "poly cystic ovarian disease". This web-page is an educational tool to inform and educate, and should not be used as a substituted for a medical diagnose by a medical doctor. The official spelling is "poly cystic", but both forms "polycystic" and "poly cystic" are used.

It is best to familiarize yourself with the "The Normal Ovary" before you continue further.

Most of you reading this page are either suffering from or know somebody who is suffering from polycystic ovaries. The presenting symptoms are usually menstrual abnormalities or infertility. It is one of the diseases known as a "hormonal imbalance". We will use the abbreviation PCO to refer to the "Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome". We will first discuss the disease and then give a summary with diagrams towards the end.

Women suffering from this condition do not ovulate (they don't release egg cells). The follicles start to develop the normally (see Normal Ovary) but the follicles do not rupture and no egg cells are released. Consequently there are multiple follicles and cysts in the ovary. A cyst is just a large follicle that is roughly 25mm to 30mm in diameter. The name poly cystic ovaries actually means ovaries with many cysts.

PCO causes menstrual abnormalities due to the absence of ovulation (release of an egg cell). The absence of ovulation means an absence of progesterone, and therefore an abnormal endometrium (A thick pedometer with to few glands and blood vessels). To understand why, familiarize yourself with "The Female Organs" and "Normal Menstruation".

The classic symptoms are absence of menstrual bleeding for long periods (months). This is followed by abnormal and prolonged bleeding. This period of bleeding is then again followed by long periods (months) of absence of any bleeding. It also causes periods of abdominal (tummy) pain due to the presence of ovarian cysts.

It is very common to find an associated increased secretion of androgens (male hormones). A woman suffering from PCOs might have an excess of male hormone in her system. This leads to the development of physical male characteristics such as abnormal hair growth (on the face and chest ), voice changes and enlargement of the clitoris. It is therefor very important to diagnose and treat the condition early.

Please note this condition warrants expert medical care, preferably by a gynecologist or endocrinologist. There is a specific hormonal pattern present that doctors will recognize with blood tests. Ovarian function, and the function of most hormones, is regulated by a small gland situated at the base of the brain .In PCO there is a characteristic disturbance in the substances formed and excreted by this gland (the pituitary gland). See the Pituitary Gland, LH.

The levels of LH (a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland) are increased .

There are also other hormonal abnormalities present. Increased levels of androgens (male hormones) are commonly found, as mentioned earlier.

It is also important that the sugar metabolism and blood cholesterol in a patient with PCO is checked, as this is associated with a disturbance in the way the body handles sugar due to changes in insulin secretion. Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas and it's function is to regulate the blood sugar levels. There is a high incidence of insulin resistance in these patients. Higher levels of insulin are needed to control the blood sugar levels. Because of the resistance, insulin is not working properly and more insulin is required to keep the blood sugar levels normal. In the long run it can lead to the development of diabetes. When the pancreas becomes exhausted trying to keep up to produce enough insulin to keep the sugar levels down.

There are different methods of treatment and depends on a desire to conceive or not. If a pregnancy is desired, ovulation induction treatment is indicated. (see infertility for more information). Otherwise ovulation suppression is indicated. The different oral contraceptive pills ( "THE PILL" ) and certain drugs used in the treatment of acne are usually used (Drugs containing Cypriote.) These drug suppress the pituitary by fooling its negative feedback system. The pituitary detects these drugs, regards it as estrogen secreted by the ovary and decreases its production of FSH and LH. ( See Pituitary Gland; FSH ; LH.).

At one stage an operation called a wedge resection ( also called bivalving of the ovary) was commonly done but it became less frequently performed over the years.

A new technique is now advocated called ovarian drilling. These operations will be discussed in more detail elsewhere.

The presence of PCO is frequently masked by the use of oral contraceptives ( either used for their contraceptive effects or in many cases as way of treating the abnormal cycles). PCO is than only discovered later when the contraceptive is discontinued. We recommend that it may be worthwhile to exclude PCO in girls with menstrual abnormalities , before they start taking " the pill ". The necessary testing and treatment can than be started as soon as the desire to become pregnant. Contraceptive pills are a way of treating PCO, but the disease frequently starts again after discontinuation of the pill. There is a third way of treating it. by taking progesterone containing drugs for about 10 -14 days every month. This mimics the normal changes in the endometrium and causes menstruation but it doesn't suppress the pituitary gland. (See later).

The continuous secretion of estrogen without being opposed by progesterone can over a period of years ( more than ten years) lead to development of cancer of the endometrium. This is an important indication to treat this disease. All the treatment options will prevent endometrial cancer .

A Graphic summary of Polycystic Ovaries
An enlarged ovary with multiple cysts (large follicles) is shown. No ovulation occurs (or it occurs very seldom). New follicles develop while the old ones are still present. Some of these cysts can become extremely large, the size of tennis balls or even larger.
This illustrates the thick endometrium which is due to the continuous secretion of estrogen and the absence of progesterone. There is an absence of spiral arteries and the endometrium becomes very thick. (Compare it with "The endometrium in the normal cycle")
This illustrates what happens after a prolonged period (months) of estrogen only stimulation. Areas of the endometrium became so thick that parts outgrow their blood supply . The endometrium in these areas are shed, the blood vessels are exposed and bleeding begins. This bleeding can continue for prolonged periods (longer than 7 days) Eventually this unopposed stimulation of the endometrium can lead to the development of abnormal cells and eventually cancer of the endometrium. It is called "unopposed stimulation" because of the absence of progesterone.
PCO is a cause of "Abnormal Menstruations".