How to Properly Get Diagnosed with PCOS
How much do you know about PCOS?
First identified by an Italian physician nearly three centuries ago, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) affects an estimated 10 to 27 percent of women of childbearing age. Presently, it’s one of the most common causes of female infertility. Yet very often it goes undiagnosed, in part because the medical community is still deciding how to diagnose it.
There isn’t simply one test used to diagnose PCOS. The syndrome is defined as a collection of symptoms caused by an imbalance of reproductive hormones. Those symptoms can include irregular or missed periods, hirsutism (excess hair growth on the face or body), weight gain or trouble losing weight, acne, headaches, hair loss, and problems sleeping. Part of the trouble with diagnosing is that some of these symptoms will resolve on their own, especially in younger women who are still maturing. Other symptoms may be attributable to other conditions, such as thyroid dysfunction. Charting your cycle with a Fertility Awareness-Based Method (FABM) is a huge help in monitoring these symptoms.
PCOS is often identified by means of excluding other conditions. A panel of experts on the condition has agreed that a PCOS diagnosis requires two of these three symptoms: higher-than-normal levels of androgens, or male hormones; irregular or missed menstrual cycles; and ovarian cysts.
In a typical cycle, an egg matures in an ovary to the point that it triggers ovulation—the release of the egg into the fallopian tube, where it may meet sperm and become fertilized. When eggs don’t mature, they may become encased in a follicle and remain in the ovary as a cyst. “Polycystic” refers to these multiple cysts that may be seen via ultrasound.
While there currently isn’t a cure for PCOS, there are ways to treat and manage it. An accurate diagnosis is the key to a successful treatment plan. Here’s what you need to know about talking with your doctor to understand your risk of PCOS.
1. Give a full family history.
PCOS can run in families. If your mother or sister had it or had trouble getting pregnant, let your doctor know. The condition may not have been diagnosed, so the more relevant information you have about their cycles (and your own, of course!), the better.
2. Don’t downplay your symptoms.
The doctor’s office isn’t the place to be a hero. Symptoms that are causing discomfort should be addressed honestly and completely so that your doctor has the information she needs to come to a conclusion. Tracking your cycle with a Fertility Awareness-Based Method will give further insight into the phases of your cycle, as well as the overall length of the cycle.
3. Ask for testing.
The road to a PCOS diagnosis involves a number of checkpoints. You’ll likely have a physical exam, checking things like blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), and looking for any acne or excess hair growth. Expect a pelvic exam and transvaginal ultrasound (where the tech inserts the wand into your vagina) as well. Your doctor is looking for cysts on your ovaries and/or thicker-than-normal lining in your uterus. Blood tests can be also used to measure hormone levels and to potentially exclude other metabolic conditions.
The majority of women with PCOS have trouble getting pregnant before making changes to manage their condition. However, even if pregnancy isn’t on her radar, a woman who thinks she has PCOS should talk to her doctor, as the condition increases the likelihood of her having high blood pressure or diabetes, among other complications. Choosing a doctor certified in FEMM or NaProTechnology, who understands Fertility Awareness-Based Methods of cycle charting (also known as Natural Family Planning) will increase the chance he or she can give you natural means of improving your condition instead of auto-prescribing a form of hormonal birth control, which only masks the symptoms of PCOS.
The good news is that PCOS is often managed with changes to diet and exercise, which also improve overall health and minimize the risk of developing disease down the line. If you’re overweight, losing weight with a healthy and balanced approach to diet and exercise can help you to ovulate more regularly. Medication and, in some cases, surgery can also help the ovaries to function normally and allow the possibility of conception. If you think you may have PCOS, there’s no harm in talking to your doctor about it. Your future self (and perhaps your future children!) will thank you.