Cramps. Headaches. Bloating. Acne. Nausea. All signs point to a menstrual cycle. Sounds super fun, right? Take these symptoms, multiply them by 20, and add in a heap of other side effects. What do you get? Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.
Ten million women around the world have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). You’ve probably heard the term before, but what does it really mean? And, how do you know the difference between a particularly painful period and PCOS? Don’t worry, we’re here to clear things up with 5 things you should know about PCOS.
1. It’s more common than you think
PCOS affects one in ten women, regardless of age, income, nationality or lifestyle. From celebrity trainer, Jillian Michaels, to Star Wars’ actress, Daisy Ridley, to designer, Victoria Beckham, and actress Emma Thompson, PCOS can affect any woman and has affected all of those women.
“To any of you who are suffering with anything, go to a doctor; pay for a specialist; get your hormones tested, get allergy testing; keep on top of how your body is feeling and don’t worry about sounding like a hypochondriac. From your head to the tips of your toes we only have one body, let us all make sure ours are working in tip top condition, and take help if it’s needed,” Daisy Ridley wrote on her Instagram account.
2. It’s more than just painful periods
We don’t know the exact cause of PCOS, but it is believed to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. What we do know is that it causes an imbalance of women’s hormones, which leads to many physical and emotional side effects.
Basically: Your ovaries make too many hormones, which affects the development and release of eggs during ovulation. In some cases, women’s eggs aren’t released from their ovaries and will become very small cysts inside the ovary. According to the PCOS Awareness Association, the most common symptoms are:
- Irregular or missed periods
- Pelvic pain and heavy bleeding
- Weight gain and fatigue
- Acne and unwanted hair growth
PCOS is a leading cause of female infertility. But not every woman with PCOS is the same—some may conceive naturally, while others may need some assistance.
3. It’s difficult to diagnose and treat
Symptoms of PCOS can appear during puberty or well into adulthood. Some women may suffer and go undiagnosed for years. According to the PCOS Foundation, only half of all women with PCOS are diagnosed.
“Women are typically diagnosed by having at least two of the following three symptoms: irregular or absent menstrual cycles, elevated levels of male hormones, and/or ovaries with cysts,” Dr. Mark Perloe, director of Georgia Reproductive Specialists, told Elite Daily.
Treatments for PCOS depend on the woman and her symptoms. Usually, hormonal birth control is prescribed because it helps make periods less painful and more regular. But doctors will also prescribe different medications to help balance the hormones or the side effects of acne, weight gain, hair growth, etc.
“Since fertility issues can be the most worrisome symptom for some women dealing with PCOS, endometriosis, or both, IVF may be an option, as can various medications designed to boost fertility,” wrote SHAPE magazine.
While PCOS awareness has increased in the last 5-10 years, there are still a lot of common misconceptions about the condition and its side effects. Buzzfeed interviewed women with PCOS and found 16 things they want you to know. Here are our favorites:
- It literally affects every aspect of life.
- People can be super ignorant about it.
- Fertility is a tricky topic to discuss.
- Having PCOS doesn’t make you any less of a woman.
4. It’s not the same as endometriosis
Only recently have we started talking about women’s intimate health conditions; the pelvic and vaginal conditions affecting women every day. But there’s still confusion about which condition is which—especially with endometriosis and PCOS.
“Though most of the symptoms are different, and they affect different parts of the reproductive system, both mess with your period, both can make you feel like utter hell, and both can cause fertility issues,” wrote SELF magazine.
Endometriosis, like PCOS, affects your pelvic area and is linked to a hormonal imbalance. But, it’s not the same condition. Endometriosis is the uncontrolled, abnormal growth of endometrial lining. And, unlike PCOS, women with endometriosis suffer from severe, debilitating pelvic pain—some women have compared it to having a heart attack. While it’s possible to have both conditions, it’s rare.
5. It’s commonly misunderstood
Even the name, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, is slightly misleading, because not every woman with PCOS actually has cysts on her ovaries. In fact, in 2013 a group of health experts recommended that the National Institute of Health change the name of the condition because it is not accurate. (Update: we’re still waiting for them to change it.)
Half of women suffering from PCOS don’t seek treatment because they think it’s just part of menstruation, or part of “being a woman.” But this is not true. It is a real medical condition that affects women’s quality of life.
BOTTOM LINE: Be kind when someone is sharing their symptoms or concerns. Don’t minimize their condition. Be open to learning more about people’s experience with PCOS and encourage them to share their concerns with their doctor. This condition affects one in ten women worldwide and presents differently in each person.
Also, PCOS may be common, but it can still make women feel isolated, anxious, and afraid. Check out support groups for PCOS and as always, please consult a healthcare professional if you think you have PCOS.