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The difference between polycystic ovaries and polycystic ovary syndrome

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Have you ever heard of polycystic ovary syndrome? 

Breaking down the diagnosis: 

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common condition that occurs in around 1 in every 5 women in the UK (more than half of whom don't have any symptoms). Translated into non-medical terms, it means that there are cysts on a woman’s ovaries. These cysts could be completely benign, meaning they cause no harm and simply sit there, and this would still be the same diagnosis. These cysts can act as a block for eggs during ovulation, causing less frequent ovulation, which can lead to irregular periods. This is the number one indication of this condition as it is often the first or the easiest thing for women to identify.

A lot of women have cysts on their ovaries but are not classed as having polycystic ovaries or polycystic ovary syndrome, because there are not enough cysts to fit the spec for this diagnosis. The cysts may exist, but they would not be classed as polycystic. Typically, this is the case unless there is a minimum of 7 cysts on each ovary.

The difference between these 2 diagnoses’ are the symptoms. Polycystic ovaries simply mean that the cysts are there. Polycystic ovary syndrome means that you have other symptoms accompanying the cysts. The most common symptoms are: irregular periods, excessive hair growth, weight gain, thinning or loss of hair from the head and problematic skin (oily or acne prone). If you have 2 or more of these symptoms alongside the required 7 cysts on each ovary, you would be classed as having the syndrome. 

As you have probably gathered by now, the differences are pretty minimal. What I have learnt from my experience, and what medical professionals frequently forget to explain, is that one can lead to the other. One thing I wasn’t told was that having normal, regular cysts on your ovaries can develop into polycystic ovaries. Similarly, polycystic ovaries can develop into polycystic ovary syndrome. 

On a lighter note, the word ovaries has been used so much so, that it is starting to sound weird now. 

Polycystic ovaries do not necessarily bear any negative implications when it comes to conceiving or fertility. Of course, this can have an effect on a woman’s ability to conceive, but in most cases, there is a course of antibiotics that can be taken to force ovulation where there may be blockages. This means that when a woman is trying to conceive but has cysts on her ovaries that are stopping an egg being released as frequently as it should, the prescription drugs will force eggs to be released, therefore forcing ovulation. 

What you can do:

The main thing to look out for when trying to identify if you are at risk of having either of these diagnosis’ is irregular periods. This could mean anything from having a complete absence of periods, to skipping 2 or 3. If you are worried about irregular periods or have multiple of the symptoms described above, seek advice from your GP.

I have found that often, GP’s are hesitant to give referrals in these cases unless the patient is approaching 30, or is having problems with trying to conceive. What I will say is that young people matter as well and if you want advice on this, you should push for a referral. There is a multitude of reasons why age shouldn’t matter in cases like this, not least because it’s always better to know what you are dealing with for your future. This is especially true considering polycystic ovary syndrome can lead to other health problems like type 2 diabetes and endometrial cancer.

Speaking of future, there are things you should and shouldn’t do if you have either of these diagnosis’ that could impact your fertility future. I won’t go into this because this is entirely different depending on the individual, but do be sure to seek this information for yourself if required! 

The most important thing to take away from this, in any of the situations mentioned above, is to always ask the questions to which you want answers. No questions are too big, too small or too silly. Doctors are there to answer your questions, so don’t ever feel like you can’t ask, or risk feeling like you are walking away with any unanswered questions. 

I hope this article has cleared up any queries on the difference between polycystic ovaries and polycystic ovary syndrome, as well as maybe setting some minds at rest about the possible implications of these conditions. 

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