What are the signs and symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)?

Updated: Sep 19, 2019
  • Author: Richard Scott Lucidi, MD, FACOG; Chief Editor: Richard Scott Lucidi, MD, FACOG  more...
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The major features of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) include menstrual dysfunction, anovulation, and signs of hyperandrogenism. [2] Although the exact etiopathophysiology of this condition is unclear, PCOS can result from abnormal function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian (HPO) axis. A key characteristic of PCOS is inappropriate gonadotropin secretion, which is more likely a result of, rather than a cause of, ovarian dysfunction. In addition, one of the most consistent biochemical features of PCOS is a raised plasma testosterone level. [7] (See Etiology and Workup.)

Stein and Leventhal were the first to recognize an association between the presence of polycystic ovaries and signs of hirsutism and amenorrhea (eg, oligomenorrhea, obesity). [8] After women diagnosed with Stein-Leventhal syndrome underwent successful wedge resection of the ovaries, their menstrual cycles became regular, and they were able to conceive. [9] As a consequence, a primary ovarian defect was thought to be the main culprit, and the disorder came to be known as polycystic ovarian disease. (See Etiology and Treatment.)

Further biochemical, clinical, and endocrinologic studies revealed an array of underlying abnormalities. As a result, the condition is now referred to as PCOS, although it may occur in women without ovarian cysts and although ovarian morphology is no longer an essential requirement for diagnosis.

A woman is diagnosed with polycystic ovaries (as opposed to PCOS) if she has 12 or more follicles in at least 1 ovary—measuring 2-9 mm in diameter—or a total ovarian volume greater than 10 cm3. (See the image below.) (See Workup.)

Longitudinal transabdominal ultrasonogram of an ov Longitudinal transabdominal ultrasonogram of an ovary. This image reveals multiple peripheral follicles.

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