Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: An Overview

Mac Pannill, MPAS, PA-C


Topics in Advanced Practice Nursing eJournal. 2002;2(3) 

In This Article

Treatment Options

Weight Loss

Women with a BMI of greater than 27 kg/m2 are considered overweight, and they are often insulin resistant. Women with a BMI of > 30 kg/m2 are considered obese and are almost always insulin resistant. Weight loss, even as a little as 5% to 7%, can decrease the amount of circulating androgens and, thus, will induce ovulation. Weight loss is also associated with decreased insulin and testosterone levels and an improved lipoprotein profile. These patients usually do the best when many members of a healthcare team, including a nutritionist, are actively involved in their care.[1,3,8]

Hormonal Treatments

Combination oral contraceptives (OCs) provide many benefits to the PCOS patient and have for a long time been the mainstay of treatment. The progesterone component of the OC provides protection for the endometrium from unopposed estrogen. Also, OCs suppress ovarian, adrenal, and peripheral androgen metabolism, which in turns reduces free testosterone. OCs also suppress LH levels, which then decrease testosterone production by the ovaries. Similarly, OCs inhibit 5 alpha-reductase in the skin, which helps with acne. For those patients not wanting to become pregnant, OCs provide a reliable form of birth control in addition to providing a regular monthly menstrual cycle.

There are no studies that suggest that one OC is better than another for the treatment of PCOS. All OCs, whether they carry an FDA indication, are antiandrogenic. Once a patient has decided that she wants to try and conceive, she should then stop her OCs and promptly begin attempts to conceive. There is no need to wait the traditional 3 months before attempting a pregnancy. This is important because circulating androgens are at their lowest point immediately following OC use, and these patients will more likely ovulate at that time and not require an ovulation induction drug.[1,9,19]

Progestins work well in the patient who is not a candidate for OCs due to smoking, hypertension, or other contraindications. The progestin will protect the endometrium from chronic exposure to estrogen. The progestins, however, will not protect against a pregnancy.[6,9]

Insulin-Sensitizing Agents

Metformin (Glucophage) and troglitazone (Rezulin) are 2 insulin-sensitizing agents that have been shown to be successful in treating anovulation in the infertile PCOS patient. However, because of reports of severe liver toxicity, troglitazone was removed from the market, so metformin is now the insulin-sensitizing agent of choice. The newer agents on the market, rosiglitazone (Avandia) and pioglitazone (Actos), have not been extensively studied.

Insulin-sensitizing agents are indicated in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus, elevated fasting insulin levels, or elevated 2-hour value on the glucose tolerance test. Metformin 1500-2000 mg per day in 2 to 3 divided doses is prescribed to stimulate resumption of normal menses and ovulation. Generally, it takes about 2 to 4 months for results. Prior to starting metformin, serum creatinine levels should be evaluated. Levels less than 1.4 mg/dL are necessary to reduce the rare complication of lactic acidosis.[1,3,8]

Since few studies report the use of insulin-sensitizing agents in PCOS patients who do not have insulin resistance, their use is not indicated. However, in time, these agents may be used to treat all patients with PCOS.[1,3,8]

Fertility Therapy

Clomiphene (Clomid) may be prescribed for PCOS patients who are anovulatory and desire pregnancy. Once the patient has conceived, clomiphene should be discontinued. If the patient was taking metformin, it should also be discontinued, as it is not FDA approved for use during pregnancy.[1,3,8]

Treatment of Hirsutism

There are many antiandrogenic agents that work well to reduce hirsutism. Oral contraceptives work well because they increase SHBG, which results in lower levels of active androgens. Also, the progestin component in the OCs inhibit 5 alpha reductase in the skin, which helps decrease the amount of hirsutism.

Spironolactone is an aldosterone antagonist that works well to control hirsutism by interfering with androgen synthesis. The recommended dose of spironolactone is 100-200 mg/day in 2 divided doses. There are few side effects associated with this drug. However, because it is a potassium-sparing diuretic, be aware of the potential for hyperkalemia with prolonged use. Flutamide (Eulexin) and finasteride (Proscar) are other antiandrogenic drugs. They are costly and have many side effects, thus making them less appealing options. The length of the hair cycle is long, so the response of these drugs should not be expected for at least 3-6 months. This is an important point to stress to the patient.

Nonpharmacologic treatments for hirsutism may include bleaching, wax stripping, shaving, or the use of hair removal creams or electrolysis. Despite popular beliefs, these approaches do not accelerate the rate of hair growth.[1,9]

Surgical Treatment

Ovarian wedge resection is a surgical procedure that was once done for patients with PCOS. In this procedure, a portion of the ovary was removed and the remainder of the ovary was sutured back together. This caused a reduction in LH secretion and androgen production. However, due the severe adhesive disease that ensued, this procedure has all but been abandoned. Ovarian drilling may sometimes be used because there is much less adhesion formation following this procedure. Ovarian drilling is another surgical procedure that involves cauterizing the small follicles on the surface of the ovary. By cauterizing these follicles, androgen production will be decreased.[9]


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