PCOS: what are the “hidden” signs and symptoms of this common hormone condition
Health

PCOS: what are the “hidden” signs and symptoms of this common hormone condition?

Polycystic ovary Syndrome (PCOS) may be one of the most common hormone conditions, but medical experts say that “hidden” symptoms are preventing as many as three in four from being diagnosed.

September marks polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) awareness month, which aims to spotlight the most common – but one of the most complex – hormone conditions.

According to leading PCOS charity Verity, the condition affects one in 10 people with ovaries in the UK, however they believe that many more could have PCOS but be diagnosed. Some estimates suggest that that figure could be as many as three in four who remain undiagnosed due to the lack of awareness of the symptoms. 

 What are the symptoms of PCOS? 

“The most common symptoms of PCOS are delayed or missed periods due to a lack of regular ovulation, unwanted hair growth (hirsutism), cystic acne and scalp hair loss,” Dr. Nitu Bajekal tells Stylist.

She explains that the symptoms of PCOS are “wide ranging” and not everyone will display all of the signs, even if they have the condition. Because PCOS can look so different from person to person, this often leads to “hidden” symptoms that are less well-known and harder to pick up on.

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The “hidden” symptoms of PCOS

These, Dr Bajekal says, can include excessive daytime sleepiness, breathing problems like sleep apnoea and snoring, darkened skin behind the neck, underarms and groin, as well as psychological signs such as heightened depression and anxiety.

“It’s a very misunderstood condition,” says Le’Nise Brothers, a registered nutritionist who specialises in menstrual health and hormones. “PCOS awareness month helps break down misconceptions and one-size-fits-all thinking and treatment so that those with PCOS can get the appropriate treatment and support.”

Brothers started a podcast, Period Story, to help break down taboos about menstrual health and conditions like PCOS, endometriosis, fibroids and adenomyosis. “It’s important that we can get a better understanding of what’s actually normal, and the common experiences we’ve accepted as normal,” she tells Stylist.

There is already a huge disparity between men and women’s experiences of healthcare, with women often waiting longer for treatment, having to fight for their symptoms to be taken seriously and experiencing a “pain bias”, where they’re less likely to be given effective painkillers as men.

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Alex Williams, a registered associate nutritionist who specialises in PCOS management, believes that people with PCOS need more support to deal with the emotional toll of the condition on their lives.

“As the most common reproductive age endocrine (hormone) disorder, we require more high-quality research into its management rather than doctors only prescribing the hormonal birth control pill and/or weight loss,” she says.

“Treatment must be individualised and may be best decided with help of a specialist,” agrees Dr Bajekal, while also stressing the importance of reliable, credible and evidence-based health resources, such as Verity, the NHS and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. 

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How can PCOS be managed effectively?

PCOS is a chronic condition so, while there is no “cure”, health professionals state that making positive lifestyle changes can go a long way in managing PCOS and its symptoms in both the short and long term.

“All national and international guidelines recommend lifestyle and behavioural changes as the first line of management for PCOS, even before medications,” explains Dr Bajekal.

“Some people with PCOS will benefit from medication such as the oral contraceptive pill or fertility treatment, alongside lifestyle changes. It’s best to weigh up all options with your health professional.”

Before taking any advice or making medical decisions, be sure to always consult your GP.

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