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I have irregular menstrual cycles, and my doctor told me I have polycystic ovary syndrome. What does this mean?

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is one of the most common causes of infrequent ovulation and irregular cycles in women. The exact cause is as yet unknown and in some cases may be genetic. In this syndrome, the ovaries produce an excess of androgens (male-type hormones) that prevent the egg from maturing normally, and the ovaries often have a multicystic appearance on ultrasound (hence the term polycystic ovaries) as a result of this arrest in maturation. Higher androgen production may also be associated with excess hair growth (hirsutism) on the face, chest, and abdomen. Because of fewer normal ovulations, women with PCOS often have difficulty conceiving. In addition, many patients with PCOS are resistant to the action of insulin and thus should be screened for diabetes.

Because ovulation is infrequent when PCOS is present, the uterine lining does not shed regularly. Women who don’t menstruate regularly are at increased risk for developing cancer of the lining of the uterus (endometrial cancer). This can be prevented by treatment with a medication known as Provera®, which will induce a menstrual flow. Provera® is a tablet taken daily for 12 to 14 days every two or three months.

If a woman with PCOS wishes to conceive, ovulation can usually be stimulated with a medication known as clomiphene citrate. If this treatment is unsuccessful, injectable medications, called gonadotropins, may be necessary. Gonadotropins are very successful in inducing ovulation, though they are more often associated with multiple pregnancies than is clomiphene citrate.

Another treatment that has helped some patients is surgical “drilling” of the ovaries or wedge resection. This laparoscopic procedure temporarily reduces androgen production by the ovaries and may result in spontaneous ovulation or may improve the response of the ovaries to ovulation inducing medications.

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