An Undiagnosed Female Epidemic: Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome

By Martin Brown

woman-patientGoing to a day spa for hair removal or acne treatments, or a beauty salon that offers such treatments could be covering up a serious health condition that affects over twenty million women in the United States.

It’s called PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), a hormonal imbalance that, if left untreated, can lead to heart disease, diabetes and stroke. PCOS is also the leading cause of infertility among otherwise healthy women. It is estimated that at least 8% of American women could be suffering from PCOS, with many cases going undiagnosed due to lack of awareness.

PCOS is a problem that starts when a woman’s body produces elevated levels of the male hormone testosterone. This throws their hormones out of balance and many small cysts can develop on the ovaries. PCOS can also disrupt a woman’s period, make it difficult to get pregnant and can, among other things, cause excessive facial hair growth, acne and obesity.

The visible symptoms of PCOS are:

  • Acne, often severe and in the lower part of the face
  • Excessive, thicker or darker hair on the face and body
  • Irregular or absent period
  • Difficulty getting pregnant
  • Excessive weight gain or the inability to lose weight
  • Thinning scalp hair
  • Insulin resistance
  • Depression

Mitchell Chasin, M.D, Medical Director of Reflections Center for Skin & Body in Livingston and Bridgewater, N.J., diagnoses at least ten women a week with PCOS, many of whom first tried treating their symptoms at a day spa or salon without anyone realizing that the hair growth and acne were not just nuisances, but signs of a serious underlying medical disorder.  For this reason, he has begun to raise awareness about PCOS.

“If caught in time, PCOS is a treatable condition,” says Dr. Chasin, “Unfortunately, many places that women go to treat the symptoms lack the medical knowledge to recognize the root cause of the problem. We’ve had many women come to our aesthetic medical practice who are surprised when we diagnose them with PCOS.”

In the last decade, demand has skyrocketed for treatments to remedy excessive hair growth, facial acne and weight gain; all telltale signs of PCOS.  In response, many technologies have been introduced to treat these problems, including laser hair removal devices and laser acne treatments. Each successive generation of these devices has grown safer and more effective, but the problem of PCOS is still going undiagnosed because of who is at the controls of these lasers in many states.

Due to laxity and loopholes in the laws of many states, aestheticians, nurses and technicians are allowed to operate these devices.  Unfortunately, many of these non-physicians are unaware that the symptoms they are treating can signal a serious underlying medical condition.

“I am disheartened every time I hear a woman tell me about all the treatments she’s had in the past, and no one even brought up PCOS,” says Dr. Chasin. “It’s important that women are aware that this condition exists, that it is serious, and that the sooner a diagnosis is made, the better it is for her and her family on many fronts.”

Dr. Chasin advises that, if diagnosed with PCOS, a woman should start exercising on a regular basis, switch to a heart-healthy diet and try to lose weight; even a few pounds can make a difference. Last but not least, they should stop smoking. PCOS may be treated with medicines including birth control pills, hormone blockers, diabetes medicines and fertility drugs.

It is very important to be aware of PCOS and see the right doctors to diagnose the condition. Stabilizing the hormone levels early can prevent infertility and decrease chances of miscarriage. Estimates put the rate of miscarriages in women with PCOS at 45% although some believe the figure may be higher. Fertility problems experienced by women with PCOS may be related to the insulin resistance  or elevated glucose levels, both which can interfere with implantation as well as development of the embryo. Additionally, abnormal insulin levels may also contribute to poor egg quality, making conception more difficult.

“If you are seeking treatment for excessive hair growth or acne, it’s best to avoid the day spa or beauty salon altogether,” says Dr. Chasin. “Your body might be telling you something important, and you’d be wise to listen.” He recommends going to a Cosmetic Medical Practice (or Medical Spa) and be treated only by a physician. A skilled aesthetic physician should be able to quickly make an accurate diagnosis and will have the ability to combine advanced lasers and other technologies with prescription medicines for the best results.

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