Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: It’s Not Just About Fertility

Mark P. Trolice, MD

May 21, 2021

Polycystic ovary syndrome, the most common endocrinopathy and most common cause of female infertility, affects 8%-13% of reproductive-aged women. PCOS has a profound impact on a woman’s life yet its diagnosis and management remain confusing despite being first described nearly a century ago by Stein and Leventhal.

Dr Mark Trolice

To illustrate, in a global survey of 1,385 women with PCOS, one-third or more reported a delay of greater than 2 years and nearly half required evaluation by at least three health professionals before a diagnosis was established (J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2017;102[2]:604-12). A vital health problem that urgently requires a gap analysis and needs assessment, PCOS is not “just about fertility” but has extensive gynecologic and metabolic consequences that require a personalized approach to care coordinated among the fields of internal medicine, pediatrics, dermatology, and, of course, gynecology.

Diagnosis in Adults and Adolescence

Normal menstrual intervals do not always equate with ovulation. Up to 40% of hirsute women with monthly cycles may not ovulate regularly. The Rotterdam criteria are used to confirm PCOS and require two of the following three: 1) ovulation dysfunction (cycle interval > 35 d or < 8 cycles/year); 2) hyperandrogenism (i.e., elevated total or free testosterone, DHEAS, or signs of hirsutism or acne with Ferriman-Gallwey score greater than 6); 3) polycystic ovaries on ultrasound (20 or more 2- to 9-mm follicles on at least one ovary, and/or increased ovarian volume (> 10 mL) — all at the exclusion of other etiologies including hyperprolactinemia, thyroid dysfunction, androgen-secreting tumors including Cushing’s syndrome, and nonclassic adrenal hyperplasia mostly easily screened by obtaining 17-hydroxyprogesterone.

For adolescents, by age 14 most will have adult androgen levels. Ovarian ultrasound should not be used as a criterion in this age group given the frequency of this appearance. Due to frequent menstrual irregularity, it is recommended to wait at least 2 years post menarche before consideration of a diagnosis.

Antimüllerian hormone is two- to threefold higher in women with PCOS but this hormone level has not yet been accepted as a diagnostic criterion.

The Metabolic Connection

A multisystem disorder whose name misdirects its morbidity, PCOS affects the metabolic, reproductive, and psychological system through vicious cycles of distorted feedback signals. Without a consensus of its origin, there appears to be a hypersensitivity of pituitary luteinizing hormone (LH) to hypothalamic gonadotrophin-releasing hormone. Consequently, elevated LH stimulates ovarian theca cells to increase androgens with resultant hyperandrogenic consequences. Parenthetically, the tonic elevation in LH explains the false-positive surges PCOS women experience when testing their urine during ovulation induction.

Elevations in insulin from unexplained damage to the insulin receptor acts synergistically with LH to increase ovarian androgens and inhibit ovulation. Hyperinsulinemia and abdominal fat deposition contribute to impaired glucose tolerance which is threefold higher with PCOS.

The metabolic syndrome, an association of disorders including hypertension, impaired glucose tolerance, dyslipidemia, and obesity, occurs at an increased overall prevalence rate of 43%-47% in women with PCOS, which is twice as high as in women without PCOS. PCOS is associated with low-grade chronic inflammation, which places these women at increased risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Dyslipidemia is the most common metabolic disorder in PCOS. These metabolic consequences, including obstructive sleep apnea, are worsened by hyperandrogenemia and an elevated BMI.

A Genetic Link

Multigenetic in origin, PCOS has a fivefold higher risk of inheritance from mothers with PCOS to daughters influenced by prenatal androgen exposure in utero. Genetic studies suggest a causal relationship between PCOS with body mass index, insulin resistance, onset of menopause, depression, and male-pattern balding (PLoS Genet 2018;14[12]:e10007813).

Fifteen genetic risk areas in the human genome seem to predispose to PCOS. New results suggest that altering the gut microbiome via prebiotic or probiotic therapies may be a potential treatment option.

Reproductive and Gynecologic Management

Due to chronic anovulation, unopposed estrogen can result in abnormal endometrial bleeding, endometrial hyperplasia, and a fourfold risk of endometrial cancer. This underscores the importance of regular progestin withdrawal, combined oral contraception (COC), or a progestin intrauterine device.

PCOS is a leading cause of infertility and is associated with abnormal bleeding, miscarriage, gestational diabetes, and gestational hypertension, all of which are higher based on a hyperandrogenic phenotype.

The rate of infertility in women with PCOS is 70%-80%, with ovulation dysfunction being the dominant cause. For years, the mainstay for ovulation induction was clomiphene citrate; however, letrozole has shown higher pregnancy success rates, particularly in women who have a BMI greater than 30 kg/m2. (N Engl J Med. 2014;371:119-29). Despite multiple studies demonstrating its efficacy and safety, letrozole remains without Food and Drug Administration approval for ovulation induction.

Metformin has been recommended in women with prediabetes or a BMI above 30, and it may improve menstrual regularity but has not been shown to improve live birth rates nor reduce the pregnancy complications of miscarriage or gestational diabetes. Inositol, the ubiquitous endogenous carbohydrate, has not demonstrated clear improvement in reproduction.

Laparoscopic ovarian diathermy (LOD) is a second-line treatment option, as is the use of gonadotropins, to overcome unsuccessful conservative attempts at ovulation induction. LOD is more invasive but outcomes are equivalent to gonadotropin usage while providing a dramatic reduction in multiple gestation, ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, and cost (not including the surgical procedure). Ultimately, in vitro fertilization is an option for continued infertility in women with PCOS.

Metabolic/Gynecologic Management

Given the multisystem effect of PCOS, health care providers caring for these women should be vigilant and aggressive at ensuring appropriate monitoring and management. For women with PCOS with an elevated BMI, lifestyle modification is the first line of management. Weight loss alone of only 2%-5% may restore ovulation function.

The combination of dyslipidemia, elevated BMI, and impaired glucose tolerance would presumably predict the risk of cardiovascular events, yet the impact is not proven. Despite an increase in carotid intima media thickness, there are data that suggest only an increase in stroke or myocardial infarction (J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2019;104[4]:1221-31).

Hyperandrogenism is cosmetically and psychologically disrupting to PCOS patients. The topical application of eflornithine hydrochloride may be of value for mild to moderate facial hair growth. Spironolactone is the preferred first-line agent. (Caution: effective contraception is necessary to avoid feminization of a male fetus). Women with PCOS have a higher risk of disordered eating and body image distress as well as a fivefold higher rate of mental distress such as anxiety and depression.

No specific diet has been determined as part of treatment, yet healthy food selection and caloric intake combined with exercise has been shown to improve metabolic and psychological well-being.


PCOS is a ubiquitous, frustrating, and life-altering disease. Health care providers, particularly those in women’s health, must ensure appropriate counseling and education with evidence-based medicine to empower patients toward improved health.

Dr. Trolice is director of Fertility CARE - The IVF Center in Winter Park, Fla., and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Central Florida, Orlando. He has no conflicts of interest. Please contact him at .

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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