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What Is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)?

If you are having trouble getting pregnant, your doctor will want to rule out polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). This endocrine disorder can affect many systems in a woman's body -- it also happens to be one of the leading causes of infertility. Women with this condition often have high levels of androgens (male hormones) and have irregular or missed periods.

What Is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome?

As the most common female endocrine disorder, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) affects approximately 5 percent to 10 percent of all females. So what is it exactly? What causes it? And perhaps most importantly -- how is it treated?
PCOS, also called Stein-Leventhal syndrome, is a type of hormonal disorder that affects many systems in the body and is one of the leading causes of infertility. It is believed that PCOS is primarily caused by insensitivity to the hormone insulin. It can affect girls and women in all phases of life -- from as young as eight or nine years old, up through menopause.
This health problem can affect a woman's:
  • Menstrual cycle
  • Hormones
  • Ability to have children
  • Blood vessels
  • Heart
  • Appearance.
In most cases, women with PCOS have high levels of androgens (male hormones) and have irregular or missed periods. Many women with this condition will also have numerous, small cysts, which are fluid-filled sacs on their ovaries. However, the name "polycystic ovarian syndrome" is a poor descriptor for this condition, as not all women who have PCOS have polycystic ovaries.
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
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