Endocrine disorder in women, characterized by high levels of male hormones (androgens) and infrequent or absent ovulation (see reproductive system). It causes a high proportion of female infertility cases. Symptoms vary but often include increased serum concentrations of androgens, insulin resistance, hirsutism, acne, and obesity. Menstruation may be irregular, absent, or excessive. The ovaries are usually enlarged and contain cysts. The disease may remain undiagnosed until a woman tries to conceive. The underlying cause is not fully understood, and no genetic mutations have been associated with the syndrome. Many women with Stein-Leventhal syndrome are at an increased risk of developing metabolic disorders such as type II diabetes or lipid disorders such as atherosclerosis at an unusually young age. Treatment attempts to reduce androgen production. Infertility may be treated with clomiphene citrate or gonadotropins to induce ovulation.
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The Rotterdam definition is wider, including many more patients, notably patients without androgen excess, whereas in the NIH/NICHD definition androgen excess is a prerequisite. Critics maintain that findings obtained from the study of patients with androgen excess cannot necessarily be extrapolated to patients without androgen excess.
Mild symptoms of hyperandrogenism, such as acne or hyperseborrhea, are frequent in adolescent girls and are often associated with irregular menstrual cycles. In most instances, these symptoms are transient and only reflect the immaturity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis during the first years following menarche.
PCOS can present in any age during the reproductive years. It is important to find a PCOS knowledgeable doctor to catch this disorder as many miss the diagnoses - sometimes for years.
The role of other tests is more controversial, including:
The syndrome acquired its most widely used name due to the common sign on ultrasound examination of multiple (poly) ovarian cysts. These "cysts" are actually immature follicles, not cysts ("polyfollicular ovary syndrome" would have been a better name). The follicles have developed from primordial follicles, but the development has stopped ("arrested") at an early antral stage due to the disturbed ovarian function. The follicles may be oriented along the ovarian periphery, appearing as a 'string of pearls' on ultrasound examination. The condition was first described in 1935 by Dr. Stein and Dr. Leventhal, hence its original name of Stein-Leventhal syndrome.
PCOS is characterized by a complex set of symptoms, and the cause cannot be determined for all patients. However, research to date suggests that insulin resistance could be a leading cause. PCOS may also have a genetic predisposition, and further research into this possibility is taking place. No specific gene has been identified, and it is thought that many genes could contribute to the development of PCOS.
A majority of patients with PCOS have insulin resistance. Their elevated insulin levels contribute to or cause the abnormalities seen in the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis that lead to PCOS.
Specifically, hyperinsulinemia increases GnRH pulse frequency, LH over FSH dominance, increased ovarian androgen production, decreased follicular maturation, and decreased SHBG binding; all these steps lead to the development of PCOS. Insulin resistance is a common finding among patients of normal weight as well as those overweight patients.
PCOS may be associated with chronic inflammation, with several investigators correlating inflammatory mediators with anovulation and other PCOS symptoms.
The risk of PCOS development was shown to be higher in lesbian women compared to heterosexual.
In each of these areas, there is considerable debate as to the optimal treatment. One of the major reasons for this is the lack of large scale clinical trials comparing different treatments. Smaller trials tend to be less reliable, and hence may produce conflicting results.
General interventions that help to reduce weight or insulin resistance can be beneficial for all these aims, because they address what is believed to be the underlying cause of the syndrome.
While insulin sensitizing agents are often used for overweight patients, a cohort study has shown that metformin can also improve insulin resistance in thin PCOS patients without clinically apparent insulin resistance as measured by the Homeostasis Model Assessment for Insulin Resistance (HOMA-IR). Treatment of thin PCOS patients with 1500mg Metformin twice daily was shown to reduce HOMA-IR to 1.1 versus 1.7 in control groups. Besides positive effects on insulin resistance, metformin treatment was also shown to improve hirsuitism, acne, and menstrual irregularities in thin PCOS patients.
While not useful for predicting ovulation, basal body temperatures may be used to confirm ovulation. Ovulation may also be confirmed by testing for serum progesterone in mid-luteal phase, approximately seven days after ovulation (if ovulation occurred on the average cycle day of fourteen, seven days later would be cycle day 21). A mid-luteal phase progesterone test may also be used to diagnose luteal phase defect. Methods that confirm ovulation may be used to evaluate the effectiveness of treatments to stimulate ovulation.
For overweight women with PCOS, who are anovulatory, diet adjustments and weight loss are associated with resumption of spontaneous ovulation. For those who after weightloss still are anovulatory or for anovulatory lean women, clomiphene citrate and FSH are the principal treatments used to help infertility. Previously, even metformin was recommended treatment for anovulation. But in the largest trial to date, comparing clomiphene with metformin, clomiphene alone was the most effective. In this trial, 626 women were randomized to three groups: metformin alone, clomiphene alone, or both. The live-birth rates following 6 months of treatment were 7.2% (metformin), 22.5% (clomiphene), and 26.8% (both). The major complication of clomiphene was multiple pregnancy, affecting 0%, 6% and 3.1% of women respectively. The overall success rates for live birth remained disappointing, even in women receiving combined therapy, but it is important to consider that the women in this trial had already been attempting to conceive for an average of 3.5 years, and over half had received previous treatment for infertility. Thus, these were women with significant fertility problems, and the live-birth rates are probably not representative of the typical PCOS woman. Following this study, the ESHRE/ASRM-sponsored Consensus workshop do not recommend metformin for ovulation stimulation.
The most drastic increase in ovulation rate occurs with a combination of diet modification, weight loss, and treatment with metformin and clomiphene citrate. It is currently unknown if diet change and weight loss alone have an effect on live birth rates comparable to those reported with clomiphene and metformin
For patients who do not respond to clomiphene, diet and lifestyle modification, there are options available including assisted reproductive technology procedures such as controlled ovarian hyperstimulation with FSH injections and in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Ovarian stimulation with FSH has an associated risk in women with PCOS of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome — an uncomfortable and potential dangerous condition with morbidity and rare mortality. Thus recent developments have allowed the oocytes present in the multiple follicles to be extracted in natural, unstimulated cycles and then matured in vitro, prior to IVF. This technique is known as IVM (in-vitro-maturation)
Though surgery is not commonly performed, the polycystic ovaries can be treated with a laparoscopic procedure called "ovarian drilling" (puncture of 4-10 small follicles with electrocautery), which often results in either resumption of spontaneous ovulations or ovulations after adjuvant treatment with clomiphene or FSH.
Other drugs with anti-androgen effects include flutamide and spironolactone, both of which can give some improvement in hirsutism. Spironolactone is probably the most-commonly used drug in the US. Metformin can reduce hirsutism, perhaps by reducing insulin resistance, and is often used if there are other features such as insulin resistance, diabetes or obesity that should also benefit from metformin. Eflornithine (Vaniqa) is a drug which is applied to the skin in cream form, and acts directly on the hair follicles to inhibit hair growth. It is usually applied to the face.
Although all of these agents have shown some efficacy in clinical trials, the average reduction in hair growth is generally in the region of 25%, which may not be enough to eliminate the social embarrassment of hirsutism, or the inconvenience of plucking/shaving. Individuals may vary in their response to different therapies, and it is usually worth trying other drug treatments if one does not work, but drug treatments do not work well for all individuals. For removal of facial hairs, electrolysis or laser treatments are faster and more efficient alternatives than the above mentioned medical therapies.
If a regular menstrual cycle is not desired, then therapy for an irregular cycle is not necessarily required - most experts consider that if a menstrual bleed occurs at least every three months, then the endometrium (womb lining) is being shed sufficiently often to prevent an increased risk of endometrial abnormalities or cancer. If menstruation occurs less often or not at all, some form of progestogen replacement is recommended. Some women prefer a uterine progestogen implant such as the intrauterine system (Mirena) coil, which provides simultaneous contraception and endometrial protection for years, though often with unpredictable minor bleeding. An alternative is oral progestogen taken at intervals (e.g. every three months) to induce a predictable menstrual bleeding.