Doctors Are Missing PCOS Signs

Michelle O'Connor* got called "Skeleton" all through school because she was so thin her bony frame showed clear through her skin. But for some reason, when she was almost 30 years old, she began to pack on the pounds until she resembled the Pillsbury Doughboy more than a skeleton. Nothing had changed in her diet, and she was still walking—her favorite form of physical activity—as much as always, yet she put on 50 pounds in half a year's time.

Serious Disorder

Her physician suspected ovarian cysts were the culprit of her ballooning weight. But it took a decade and two surgical procedures before a new doctor figured out she had polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). This is a serious disorder of the metabolism and is one of the most common reasons for infertility linked to hormonal causes, yet most people have never heard of the condition and doctors often don't seem to spot it in their patients. But as many as five million U.S. women have PCOS.

Andrea Dunaif, M.D. the Charles F. Kettering Professor of Medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine as well as a doctor at the Northwestern Memorial Hospital says, "Women are told they are too fat and aren't taken seriously for a long time. They go to an average of four doctors before they are diagnosed. They have been to physicians who say 'there is nothing wrong with you, don't worry.'"

O'Connor fell into a deep depression as time passed and doctors just kept telling her she had to lose weight. Even her boyfriend gave up on her, telling her she had let herself go. But Dunaif knows well that PCOS is not something a woman can take charge of without medical help. She also knows just how dangerous this complicated genetic disease can be. PCOS doesn't just cause obesity. It can double a woman's rate for developing metabolic syndrome, and puts women at risk for diabetes as well as heart disease.

Male Hormones

Dunaif says that even a woman's father and brothers are likely to be affected, with many of them suffering from similar health issues. Once a woman does receive a positive diagnosis for PCOS, it's critical that her close male relatives be tested, as well. The symptoms of PCOS tend to start in a woman's teens when she may experience irregular periods and excess hair growth on her back, chest, or face. These symptoms are brought on by excessive levels of male hormones.

Once O'Connor had her insulin resistance treated, the pounds fell away and she was able to conceive a child. The mom-to-be laments the emotional and physical pain that she suffered for so many years. If only she'd been diagnosed earlier, her life might have been very different.

*Not her real name

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