An international consortium that included the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, the Centre for Research Excellence in PCOS in Australia, and the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology has released new guidelines on polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition associated with hormone imbalances in women. "It's a global initiative with the intention of improving the health and the quality of life of women with PCOS and supporting their health professionals to partner with them to do so," said Helena Teede, MBBS, PhD, the lead author of the guideline as well as professor of women's health and director of the Monash Centre for Health Research and Implementation at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
PCOS can be hard to recognize and diagnose. While the term 'polycystic' refers to cysts on the ovaries, not every woman with PCOS will have cysts. Some women may only have a few features of the condition and these may change over time both in terms of severity and which features are expressed. Some features, such as weight gain and excess facial and body hair, can vary between ethnic groups, according to the guidelines. The variety of symptoms is one of the reasons PCOS can be difficult to diagnose. The diagnosis of PCOS can also be quite challenging in adolescents, as menstrual cycles naturally tend to vary for several months after girls have their first menstrual periods (menarche) and ultrasound characteristics are not used for diagnosis. At present, there is no specific test that can diagnose PCOS.
The main goal of the guidelines, released in July, is to standardize care for women who have PCOS. Dr. Teede says researchers will continue to study the condition and update the guidelines as needed. The new guidelines were published simultaneously in three journals: Clinical Endocrinology, Human Reproduction and Fertility and Sterility. As part of the guidelines release, a patient guide was also published to provide detailed information for girls and women with PCOS.
PCOS is the most common hormone disorder in women, affecting 13% of women worldwide, and is a leading cause of infertility in women. The condition can affect girls as young as 11 years old. It is estimated that 5 to 6 million girls and women in the U.S. have PCOS, yet many don't know they have it.
According to Professor Teede, PCOS is a multi-faceted condition, "with reproductive, metabolic and psychological features, which often means diagnosis is delayed, treatment is often not holistic and opportunities for prevention, treatment and improved health outcomes including in infertility and pregnancy health are missed."
While the exact underlying causes of PCOS are not known, there is a genetic component—women with mothers or sisters who have PCOS are twice as likely to have the condition. It is thought that the main problems are an imbalance of sex hormones and resistance to the effects of the hormone insulin, which helps regulate glucose levels in the blood. Women with PCOS may overproduce androgens such as testosterone and may experience various signs and symptoms, such as excess facial and body hair, acne, and weight gain. When there is insulin resistance, the body tries to compensate by making even more insulin. Too much insulin may cause the ovaries to increase androgen production, which in turn causes the symptoms associated with PCOS.
According to the new guidelines, a diagnosis of PCOS means a woman has two of the following three indicators:
- Irregular menstrual periods—more frequent or less frequent than monthly
- Symptoms such as acne (sometimes severe) and increased hair growth, which can be on the face, stomach and/or back, or a blood test showing higher levels of androgens (e.g., a testosterone test may show an elevated level)
- An ultrasound of the ovaries that shows more than twenty cysts. (No ultrasound is needed if a woman has both of the first two indicators.)
PCOS is often be associated with other conditions, such as infertility, diabetes or insulin resistance, high blood pressure, heart disease and sleep apnea. While there is no cure for PCOS, treatment is aimed at reducing its symptoms and preventing further complications.
According to the new guidelines, treatment should focus on and address each woman's specific symptoms. The patient booklet addresses emotional well-being and offers a list of lifestyle changes women can make to improve their condition, including diet and exercise. There are also suggestions for treating menstrual irregularity, excess facial and body hair, acne and infertility.