Puberty: Physiology and Abnormalities, 1st ed. 2016

16. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome in Adolescent Girls

Sajal Gupta Elizabeth Pandithurai2 and Ashok Agarwal3


Andrology Center, Cleveland Clinic, 10681 Carnegie Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44195, USA


Department of Urology, Cleveland Clinic, 10681 Carnegie Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44195, USA


American Center for Reproductive Medicine, Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, OH, USA

Sajal Gupta



Adolescent girlsPolycystic ovary syndromeHyperandrogenismInsulin resistanceMenstrual irregularitiesMetabolic syndromeHormonal imbalanceHirsutismOligo-ovulationOligomenorrheaLH/FSH ratio


PCOS: Definition

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), als o called Stein–Leventhal syndrome , is one of the most common disorders of hormonal imbalance in women of reproductive age. The name by itself is a misnomer, as not all women with the syndrome have polycystic ovaries and not all women with polycystic ovaries suffer from PCOS.

Gynecologists Irving F. Stein, Sr., and Michael L. Leventhal first described the disease in 1935 [1]. They noticed ovarian cysts in women with anovulatory cycles and found an association between the two. The combination of symptoms such as oligomenorrhea , infertility, and hirsutism along with bilaterally enlarged polycystic ovaries formed the diagnosis of Stein–Leventhal syndrome. The name was later replaced as “polycystic ovary syndrome.” The presence of ovarian cysts and anovulation remained the main diagnostic criteria for the syndrome for many years, until recently, when the multisystem involvement of the disease was understood by the clinicians.

In 1982, Hughesdon reported that the polycystic appearance of the ovaries was caused by an increase in the number of growing follicles measuring less than 10 mm in diameter. These follicles are arrested at various stages of development. Because an arrested ovarian follicle looks like a cyst, it should be considered normal. It is only the increase in the number of follicles that is considered pathologic, with polycystic ovarian syndrome being the major underlying cause. Multifollicular ovaries have been reported as a normal feature of puberty, and these changes recede with onset of regular menstruation [23].


The disease is frequently misdiagnosed in adolescent girls because signs and symptoms commonly overlap with those of normal puberty, and they are often missed completely. The hormonal and metabolic changes that occur during puberty increase the incidence of PCOS in adolescent girls and may also contribute to the pathogenesis of PCOS in this patient population [4]. After the onset of the first menstrual cycle, adolescent girls enter a transient state of anovulation, which is considered physiological. However, in certain adolescents, regular menstrual cycles fail to occur within 2–3 years of menarche and they remain anovulatory. In those cases, the possibility of PCOS must be explored [5].

The prevalence of PCOS is determined by the diagnostic criteria being used. According to diagnostic criteria outlined by the NIH/NICHD, PCOS affects 4–8 % women of reproductive age [6]. Using NIH adult criteria, the prevalence of PCOS in adolescent girls aged 15–19 years is approximately 1 %, although this may be an underestimation as PCOS is an underdiagnosed condition, especially in non-overweight girls [7]. According to Michelmore et al. [5] the prevalence of PCOS in women aged 18–25 years is 8 % [5]. Overall, PCOS is the most common endocrine disorder in females, affecting roughly 5–10 % of all women of reproductive age [8].

Clinical Features of PCOS

The onset of symptoms predominantly occurs during puberty [9]. PCOS may manifest as early as the first decade of life as premature pubarche or menarche.

Oligomenorrhea in the early postpubertal years, although very common, may be an early symptom of PCOS, particularly in overweight girls with hirsutism or acne [10]. Signs and symptoms that occur during adolescence include hyperandrogenism such as acne, hirsutism, alopecia, weight gain [1112], and menstrual disturbances as well as insulin resistance that is evident by skin pigmentation (acanthosis nigricans). Most of these symptoms contribute to psychosocial aspects of the disease, which include lowered self-esteem, social anxiety, psychological stress, impaired well-being, and quality of life. Recent studies have also shown that adolescent girls with PCOS have sleep disorders including excessive daytime sleepiness and sleep-disordered breathing [4].

There are numerous underlying mechanisms linking obesity and PCOS. Hence, women with PCOS are mostly obese, and obesity exacerbates the clinical features of PCOS [13]. Trent et al. reported that adolescent girls with PCOS had a higher BMI than their healthy peers. The significantly elevated BMI in such girls decreased their quality of life [14].

Diagnostic Criteria

Although PCOS is the most common endocrine disorder in reproductive age women, the diagnosis is challenging. Three societies have published criteria for the diagnosis of PCOS—the NIH/NICHD (1990), ESHRE/ASRM (Rotterdam), and the Androgen Excess Society (AES) (2006) (Table 16.1). Although the Rotterdam criteria are widely used for the diagnosis of PCOS in women, their use in adolescent girls is under debate. Hence, the NIH and AES criteria are considered more useful for the diagnosis of PCOS in adolescents [15].

Table 16.1

Diagnostic criteria for PCOS in women

Diagnostic criteria for PCOS in Women (NIH/NICHD)1990 [8]

Diagnostic Criteria for PCOS in Women ESHRE/ASRM(Rotterdam Criteria) 2003 ( includes two of the following) [8]

Diagnostic criteria for PCOS in Women (Androgen Excess Society) 2006 [8]

1. Clinical and/or biochemical hyperandrogenism (excluding other androgen excess or related disorders)

2. Menstrual dysfunction

1. Clinical and/or biochemical hyperandrogenism (excluding other androgen excess or related disorders)

2. Oligo-ovulation (or) anovulation

3. Polycystic ovaries

1. Clinical and/or biochemical hyperandrogenism ( excluding other androgen excess or related disorders)

2. Ovarian dysfunction and/or polycystic ovaries

The ESHRE/ASRM (European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology/American Society for Reproductive Medicine) criteria (Table 16.1) state that the diagnosis of PCOS must include two of the following symptoms—clinical and/or biochemical hyperandrogenism, polycystic ovaries, and oligo-/anovulation—and exclude any other condition with androgen excess or related disorders [6]. Ultrasound criteria include an ovarian volume (OV) of threshold 10 cm3 and 12 or more follicles measuring 2–9 mm in diameter, and these were considered diagnostic for PCOS by the ESHRE/ASRM group [16].

According to NIH/NICHD (National Institute of Child Health and Human Disease/ National Institute of Child Health and Human Development) (Table 16.1), the criteria for the diagnosis of PCOS include clinical and/or biochemical hyperandrogenism with menstrual dysfunction and exclude other conditions with androgen excess or related disorders [6]. The AES 2006 criteria (Table 16.1) for the diagnosis of PCOS include clinical or biochemical hyperandrogenism with ovarian dysfunction and/or polycystic ovaries, and the criteria exclude other androgen excess or related disorders [6].

Diagnostic Criteria in Adolescents

There is no current consensus on the diagnosis of PCOS in adolescent girls. Studies done in the United States and Europe have shown that adolescent girls with PCOS had clinical, metabolic, and endocrine features similar to that of adult women with PCOS [17]. Sultan and Paris have suggested that adolescent PCOS could be defined by at least four of the five following criteria: (1) oligomenorrhea or amenorrhea 2 years after menarche; (2) signs of clinical hyperandrogenism such as persistent acne and severe hirsutism; (3) increased plasma testosterone >50 ng/dl (1.735 nmol/l) and increased LH/FSH ratio; (4) insulin resistance/hyperinsulinemia evident as acanthosis nigricans, abdominal obesity, and glucose intolerance; and (5) polycystic ovaries upon ultrasound showing enlarged ovaries, peripheral microcysts, and increased stroma [18] (Table 16.2). According to a study done by Bruni et al., PCOS in adolescents was best characterized by clinical hyperandrogenism (hirsutism) and/or biochemical hyperandrogenism and oligomenorrhea [15] (Table 16.2). Legro et al. suggest that PCOS in adolescents can be diagnosed by (1) the presence of clinical and/or biochemical hyperandrogenism (excluding other pathologies) and (2) persistent oligomenorrhea. They clearly stated that the anovulatory symptoms and ovarian morphology cannot be taken into account for the diagnosis of PCOS in adolescents as it can be a normal finding during reproductive maturation [3] (Table 16.2). Third PCOS consensus report concluded that the criteria for diagnosis of PCOS in adolescent girls differ from those used for older women of reproductive age group [19]. Chinese adolescent girls with PCOS were noted to have a mean ovarian volume of 6.74 cm3 and a maximum ovarian volume of 7.82 cm3, which is lesser than 10 cm3, as per the Rotterdam criteria [20].

Table 16.2

Diagnostic criteria for PCOS in adolescents

Diagnostic criteria of PCOS in adolescents (Sultan and Paris) {at least 4 out of the 5 following criteria} [18]

Diagnostic Criteria of PCOS in adolescents (Bruni et al.,) [27]

Diagnostic Criteria of PCOS in adolescents (Legro RS et al.,) [3]

1. Oligomenorrhea or amenorrhea 2 years after menarche

2. Signs of clinical hyperandrogenism such as persistent acne or severe hirsutism

3. Increased plasma testosterone>50 ng/dl, increased LH/FSH ratio

4. Insulin resistance/hyperinsulinemia evident as acanthosis nigricans, abdominal obesity, glucose intolerance

5. Polycystic ovaries on ultrasound scan showing enlarged ovaries, peripheral microcysts, increased stroma.

1. Clinical hyperandrogenism(Hirsutism)+/–

2. Biochemical hyperandrogenismand

3. Oligomenorrhea

1. Clinical and/or biochemical hyperandrogenism (excluding other pathologies) and

2. Persistent oligomenorrhea

Pathogenesis of PCOS

Endocrine Disorder

Women with PCOS have several endocrine disturbances including hyperinsulinemia, hyperglycemia, glucose intolerance, dyslipidemia, and obesity, which are considered as characteristic components of metabolic syndrome. There is a strong association between insulin resistance, obesity, and metabolic syndrome in PCOS. Hyperandrogenemia is also very commonly seen in peripubertal PCOS associated with obesity.

Insulin Resistance

The role of decreased insulin sensitivity in the pathogenesis of the disease has gained attention in recent years. There is significant insulin resistance seen in individuals with PCOS [21]—about 50–70 % of individuals with PCOS have insulin resistance contributing to its symptoms and long-term complications. Abdominal adipose tissue seen in adolescents with PCOS impairs the action of insulin. In addition, increased levels of androgen also impair glucose uptake, which again contributes to insulin resistance and increased deposition of visceral fat [15].

Elevated levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines such as TNF-alpha seen in women and adolescent girls with PCOS induce insulin resistance by decreasing glucose transporter type 4 (GLUT-4) expression leading to decreased transport of glucose and the development of hyperinsulinemia [22]. Insulin resistance and obesity enhance follicular excess noticed in patients with PCOS through the dysregulation of anti-Müllerian hormone pathway or via hyperandrogenemia pathway [23]. Elevated IL-6 levels induce the production of acute phase reactant C-reactive protein, which has been noted to be associated with increased incidence of cardiovascular events, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome [24].

It should also be kept in mind that it is completely physiological to have increased insulin resistance during the peripubertal period. During adolescence, production of growth hormone increases, which is compensated by increased secretion of insulin, leading to reduced insulin sensitivity. Insulin resistance during adolescence can also be partly caused by increased oxidation of fat and reduced oxidation of glucose [25].

Alterations in GnRH, LH/FSH Ratio

Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) stimulates the release of LH and FSH from the pituitary gland. FSH controls the growth of the ovarian follicles, especially the granulosa cells. FSH acts on the granulosa cells of the ovary and converts androgens from the theca cells of the ovary to estradiol with the help of the enzyme aromatase. LH controls the theca cells of the ovary, which are responsible for producing androgens. High GnRH pulse frequency favors production of LH and low GnRH pulse frequency favors FSH production [26].

During a normal menstrual cycle, the GnRH pulse frequency gradually increases during the first half of the cycle—the follicular phase—which is controlled by FSH. The G nRH pulse frequency peaks in the second half of the cycle, increasing LH production and decreasing FSH production. Further, the estradiol production during the first half of the cycle reaches a threshold and causes the midcycle LH surge, which induces ovulation. After ovulation, the corpus luteum develops, which generates the production of progesterone. The hormone progesterone sends feedback to the hypothalamus and subsequently slows GnRH pulse frequency, favoring FSH production and initiating the next cycle.

In PCOS, there is persistently high pulse frequency of GnRH resulting in elevated levels of LH and decreased levels of FSH, thereby elevating the LH/FH ratio. This in turn stimulates ovarian androgen synthesis leading to hyperandrogenemia in individuals with PCOS [27]. The relatively low levels of FSH impair follicular development [26].


Hyperandrogenemia plays a vital role in the pathophysiology of PCOS. According to a cross-sectional case-control study done by Coviello et al., adolescent girls with PCOS had a higher prevalence of metabolic syndrome than their healthy peers. The study noted that hyperandrogenemia was an independent risk factor for metabolic syndrome irrespective of obesity and insulin resistance [28].

PCOS in adolescence is thought to be a precursor to PCOS later in life. Girls with increased androgen levels also have reduced hypothalamic sensitivity to progesterone feedback [26], and hence, there is no slowing of GnRH pulse frequency. LH levels remain high, leading to increased androgen levels.

GnRH pulse generators are a group of neurons in the hypothalamus that generate release of GnRH in a pulsatile fashion. Blank et al. hypothesized that excess androgen levels during the peripubertal period may decrease the sensitivity of the GnRH pulse generator to sex steroid inhibition in liable individuals, leading to increased GnRH pulse frequency and thereby alterations in gonadotropin secretion, ovarian androgen synthesis, and ovulatory function. These abnormalities may advance over time to clinical hyperandrogenism and chronic oligo-ovulation typically seen in adult patients with PCOS [26].

Hyperandrogenemia seen in patients with PCOS was thought to cause low-grade inflammation by increasing sensitivity to glucose-induced oxidative stress and promoting the transcription of pro-inflammatory cytokines TNF-alpha and IL-6. These pro-inflammatory cytokines stimulate steroidogenic enzymes in the ovaries, increase the extent of androgen production, and promote central obesity through the activation of hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis; this leads to insulin resistance that may in turn cause hyperandrogenism [2930].


Insulin resistance and its compensatory hyperinsulinemia are clearly linked to anovulation and hyperandrogenism in adolescents with PCOS. These girls have an ovarian androgenic hyperresponsiveness to circulating insulin [31]. It is to be noted that a reciprocal relationship exists between hyperinsulinemia and hyperandrogenism. Evidence suggests administration of androgens can induce insulin resistance in both men and women. On the other hand, insulin stimulates androgen production in ovarian theca cells which is evident in patients with PCOS [32]. It is also a universal finding that adolescent girls with PCOS have elevated levels of free testosterone and lower levels of sex hormone-binding globulin [10]. It can be attributed that hyperinsulinemia in individuals with PCOS lowers sex hormone-binding globulin and thereby enhances the free testosterone fraction. Study done by Ormazabal P. et al. suggests that testosterone may play a negative role on the metabolic effects of insulin on endometrial stromal cell cultures in women with PCOS and may favor insulin resistance in the endometria of such patients [32].

Obesity: Cause or Effect of PCOS?

Strong evidence suggests that growth patterns in early life are associated with the risk of metabolic syndrome in adulthood [33]. Obesity during adolescence may cause changes in the hypothalamic–pituitary axis and insulin secretion as well as insulin sensitivity which can predispose individuals to the endocrine and metabolic changes seen in individuals with PCOS. These changes include impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, decreased leptin secretion, menstrual irregularities , and infertility [4]. Levels of several pro-inflammatory cytokines including TNF-alpha and IL-6 are elevated with obesity and PCOS possibly due to hyperandrogenemia and/or excess adipose tissue, but this still needs further research [15]. Obese young girls with PCOS tend to have severe symptoms.

According to a study, young girls with a higher than normal BMI during childhood had an increased risk of menstrual disturbances such as oligomenorrhea and a diagnosis of PCOS during young adulthood (age 24) [34]. A large cohort study conducted in 244 randomly selected postmenarchal girls reported polycystic ovarian morphology in 61.1 % of obese girls and in 32.1 % of normal weight girls, suggesting that obesity is a contributing factor of PCOS [34]. In another study, adolescent girls (age 14) were diagnosed with PCOS using the Rotterdam criteria and 33 % showed class III obesity by age 24 compared to 8 % of girls without the diagnosis of PCOS. This suggests that PCOS is a predicting factor of class III obesity [34]. Other predictors of class III obesity are low sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), metabolic syndrome, oligomenorrhea, high childhood insulin levels, and increased calculated free testosterone (cFT) which again are identified as PCOS phenotypes. According to the abovementioned studies, it is important that young girls who are obese or who have PCOS have to be monitored closely considering the long-term complications such as metabolic syndrome [15].

Ovarian Dysfunction

PCOS is a syndrome of ovarian dysfunction that includes hyperandrogenism and polycystic ovarian morphology. Studies have noted that ovarian enlargement is a key feature of PCOS. A typical ovary with PCOS is two to five times larger than a normal ovary [20]. Evidence suggests that PCOS is a functional disorder in which anovulation is a consequence of overproduction of ovarian androgen [35]. Adolescent girls and adults with PCOS have similar clinical and biochemical profiles. Ninety-five percent cases of functionally typical PCOS have classic PCOS, which is evident by hyperandrogenic anovulation with polycystic ovarian morphology [36].

Valproic Acid and PCOS

Valproic acid causes ovarian dysfunction by increasing ovarian androgen synthesis, thereby contributing to the hyperandrogenemia seen in girls with PCOS.

Adolescent girls frequently suffer from mental health issues such as bipolar disorder and may be prescribed chronic psychotropic drugs. Valproic acid is an anticonvulsant and also a mood-stabilizing drug that is widely used to treat adole scent girls with epilepsy and bipolar disorder and for migraine prophylaxis. The association between valproic acid use and PCOS was initially suggested in 1993 in a study where women with epilepsy who were treated with valproic acid showed more irregularities in their menstrual cycle than women using other anticonvulsants. The study also noted that the menstrual irregularities were more pronounced in the women who were started on valproic acid during adolescence; 80 % of the women started on valproic acid before the age of 20 were noted to have polycystic ovaries [37].

In a study conducted in women who were treated with valproic acid for epilepsy, 7 % of them developed features of PCOS [38]. Another study noted that 10 % of women treated with valproic acid for bipolar disorder developed PCOS [39]. In both of these studies, the association between PCOS and valproic acid use was strongest in females between the ages of 13 and 25. Hence, it is to be noted that adolescent girls are more prone to develop PCOS with valproic acid use. It can be suggested that the immature HPO axis in adolescents may leave them more prone to the iatrogenic effects of valproic acid. However, the cause remains unclear. The most well-studied proposed mechanism of action involves a direct increase in ovarian androgen biosynthesis by theca cells [40].

When similar doses of valproic acid used to treat bipolar disorder and epilepsy treatment were introduced into cultures of human ovarian theca cells, there was increased transcription of ovarian androgens. Various studies suggest that valproic acid may inhibit the metabolism of testosterone and thereby contribute to features of PCOS [41]. It may also have a central effect on GnRH or an indirect effect of obesity and insulin resistance that may induce the development of PCOS [42].

In summary, valproic acid therapy in adolescent girls is linked to PCOS. The risk for developing PCOS should be discussed before starting therapy with valproic acid. Menstrual patterns and signs of hyperandrogenism prior to initiation of treatment should be documented. Patients who are maintained chronically on valproic acid must be monitored closely for menstrual irregularities and signs of PCOS.

Hereditary Predisposition

Several studies have suggested that there is an increased risk of PCOS in adolescent girls with a family history of PCOS [18]. Girls with low birth weight and those with a family history of diabetes mellitus or premature cardiovascular disease are noted to have increased risk for developing PCOS [10]. Metabolic perturbations start early in adolescence and also exist in adolescent relatives of women with PCOS, even before clinical signs of PCOS become evident. A study by Li et al. reported risk factors associated with PCOS in adolescent Chinese girls—early menarche (<12 years), family histories of menstrual disorders, diabetes, and hypertension [17]. Twin studies suggest that the etiology of PCOS is strongly heritable [43]. In a genetic case-control study conducted in South India by Thathapudi et al., LH–chorionic gonadotropin hormone receptor (LHCGR) (rs2293275) polymorphism was found to be associated with PCOS; this study suggested that it could be used as a relevant molecular marker to identify girls at risk of developing PCOS and may provide an understanding about the etiology of the disease [44].

A Chinese study by Sun et al. suggested that genetic factors may affect the metabolic aspects of PCOS. The THADA gene is associated with lipid metabolism, whereas the DENND1A gene may be involved in insulin metabolism in patients with PCOS [45]. A study by Zhao et al. confirmed that SNP rs13429458 in the THADA gene is significantly associated with the risk of developing PCOS [46]. Identifying these genes in adolescent girls with a family history of PCOS may help physicians to evaluate their disease risk.

Long-Term Complications

Adolescents with PCOS are at a higher risk for comorbidities such as impaired glucose tolerance, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, dyslipidemia, diabetes, and endometrial hyperplasia [6,47]. Endometrial hyperplasia, if not treated, can lead to endometrial cancer. Adolescent girls with PCOS are also likely to be at increased risk for cardiovascular disease later in life [48]. The presence of obesity in adolescents with PCOS further adds to this complication [9] as it is associated with thickening of the intima media of the carotid artery. Adolescent girls with PCOS tend to have a higher body mass index and systolic blood pressure than healthy girls, which increases their risk for carotid artery disease to that of adult women with the disease [49]. Psychiatric issues such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and binge eating disorder are also noted to be among the long-term complications seen in individuals with PCOS [6]. Early diagnosis, prevention, and treatment are therefore important.

Diagnosis of PCOS

The diagnosis of PCOS during adolescence is important in order to monitor and screen for the development of type 2 diabetes and metabolic and reproductive complications [31]. Hyperandrogenism in adolescents can be determined biochemically by measuring levels of calculated free testosterone (cFT) and dehydroepiandrosterone.

Physiologically, morphological features such as ovarian volume and antral follicle count can be evaluated by the use of transabdominal ultrasonography, although they are operator dependent and of limited value for use in overweight adolescents. The use of transvaginal or transrectal ultrasound could be considered, but their use would be unethical in adolescents who are not yet sexually active [15]. With the use of ultrasound, ovarian volume and morphology such as the location, number of follicles, and stromal area can be assessed [50]. Patients with PCOS are noted to have multiple (>10) peripheral follicles, and the stromal volume positively correlates with hyperandrogenemia seen in those patients [50], although the ultrasonographic findings as mentioned in the Rotterdam criteria may not be sensitive for diagnosis of PCOS in adolescents.

Physiologically, it is normal for adolescents to have acne, anovulation, menstrual irregularities , and increased ovarian volume during the peripubertal period. Thus, specific diagnostic criteria to adolescent PCOS must be established. It is also normal for adolescents to have reduced insulin sensitivity. So, a specific cutoff value for screening tests such as fasting glucose and oral glucose tolerance also should be established [27].

Anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH) level is a good measure to assess both the quantity and quality of ovarian follicle pool. There is an initial increase in their levels until early adulthood with slow decrease with advancing age until it becomes undetectable roughly 5 years prior to menopause [51]. In a study conducted by Tomova A et al., AMH levels were noticed to be greatly elevated in women (mean age 26.59 ± 1.10 years) with PCOS. Furthermore, their levels decreased by 16.27 % after metformin therapy [23]. However, we need further studies on adolescent girls to evaluate the use of AMH levels as a biomarker for diagnosis of PCOS in adolescents and also to evaluate the efficacy of metformin use in such patients. More studies need to be conducted to explore the use of other biomarkers which will lead to noninvasive diagnosis for screening girls who are at greater risk for developing PCOS.

Management of PCOS

There is lack of standardized care in the management of adolescent PCOS. The long-term effects of pharmacological treatment in adolescents have not yet been evaluated, and hence, drugs should be used with caution. Overdiagnosis and treatment of the disease are possible. Overdiagnosis may lead to unnecessary use of medication and cause unnecessary psychological stress for the patient. On the other hand, pubertal changes are similar to those seen with PCOS and the disease can be under- or misdiagnosed. Underdiagnosis can put the patient at risk for long-term metabolic and reproductive complications [52]. The management of PCOS in adolescence is primarily targeted to treat menstrual irregularities , cutaneous hyperandrogenism, insulin resistance, and obesity.

Lifestyle Modification

Insulin resistance contributes to 50–70 % of the symptoms of PCOS. Most adolescent girls with PCOS are obese, which contributes to insulin resistance. Hence, weight loss is an important treatment strategy. Weight loss has been noted to improve symptoms of PCOS such as menstrual irregularities, hyperandrogenemia, and infertility. It can be achieved by lifestyle modifications such as exercise and diet control. In two randomized placebo-controlled clinical trials conducted by Hoeger et al., lifestyle modification alone leads to a reduction in the free androgen index, with an increase in sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), leading to decreased biochemical hyperandrogenism in obese adolescents with PCOS [53].


Recent studies have reported that metformin, when combined with lifestyle modifications, resulted in modest weight loss and restored the menstrual cycle. Increase in insulin sensitivity and improvements in lipid profiles were observed [4849]. Metformin also plays a role in ovulation induction. A randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial conducted in 22 adolescent girls with PCOS, by Bridger et al., compared 12 weeks of treatment with metformin versus placebo in combination with lifestyle counseling. Metformin significantly decreased total testosterone concentrations and established regular cyclical menses [23]. It was also noted that metformin increased HDL cholesterol levels, but there were no significant changes in body weight or insulin sensitivity [54].

Ibanez and de Zegher conducted a series of clinical trials and reported that treatment with metformin improves insulin sensitivity, corrects dyslipidemia and hirsutism , and establishes cyclical menses in Catalan girls presenting with precocious pubarche [48]. A study done by De Leo et al. confirmed the positive effects of metformin on menstrual periods and suggested that the drug can be administered in young obese women with PCOS to improve hyperandrogenic symptoms such as hirsutism and acne and to restore ovulation [5]. A study by Genazzani et al. showed that metformin modulates ovarian function and affects the secretion of LH by reducing the hyperandrogenic state. The highest rate of endocrine changes was noted in hyperinsulinemic, hyperandrogenic, nonobese PCOS patients [55]. Hence, the study postulates that it is suitable to use metformin even in nonobese patients. The beneficial effect of metformin on hyperandrogenic states in adolescents due to PCOS could be due to the restoration of ovulation and the normalization of estrogen levels [5]. Lactic acidosis is one of the feared adverse effects of metformin, which is rarely reported in adolescents.

Oral Contraceptives

Combined oral contraceptive pills are considered the first-line treatment to regulate menstrual cycles in women with PCOS who are not seeking pregnancy. They also protect the endometrium from cancer. Combination oral contraceptives such as ethinyl estradiol (EE) with drospirenone (EE/D) have been noted to improve symptoms of hyperandrogenism. Progestin-only pills or cyclical progestins can be considered for use in those with contraindications to combined oral contraceptives [56].

Oral contraceptives aid in the treatment of hirsutism along with treating menstrual irregularities . However, more severe cases of hirsutism require antiandrogen pills along with oral contraceptive pills [56]. Cyproterone is a progestogen with antiandrogenic activity, and it should be administered in combination with an oral contraceptive pill to treat hirsutism [10].

In spite of these positive effects, there are concerns about oral contraceptives increasing insulin resistance, which would be an undesirable side effect, particularly in girls with PCOS. It was also noted that the clinical symptoms recur once therapy is stopped [5]. A review conducted by Ibanez and de Zegher stated that while oral contraceptives treat symptoms such as hirsutism and menstrual irregularities in patients with PCOS, hyperinsulinemia may remain unchanged or may even worsen. In adolescents, therefore, the PCOS spectrum can be normalized by combining oral contraceptives with flutamide–metformin.


The combination of flutamide–metformin helps treat hyperinsulinemia or hyperandrogenism, thereby preventing or reversing hirsutism , acne, and irregular menses. In contrast, oral contraceptives mask hirsutism, acne, or irregular menses, and hyperinsulinemia may remain unaltered or may worsen. The combination of flutamide and metformin can help in such cases. However, flutamide cannot be used in sexually active adolescents owing to the risk of embryotoxicity, and under those circumstances, oral contraceptives in the form of estro-progestagen or a non-endocrine method of contraception can be added to the flutamide–metformin combination [57].

In another study by the same group, use of thiazolidinediones such as pioglitazone in addition to flutamide, metformin, and oral contraceptives improved markers of cardiovascular health in young women [58]. Studies have suggested that flutamide, an androgen receptor blocker, restores progesterone sensitivity and hence improves hyperandrogenic symptoms of PCOS [26].


Medications such as spironolactone and finasteride also improve hyperandrogenemia in adolescent girls with PCOS [6]. Spironolactone is an aldosterone antagonist primarily used to treat hypertension. However, it also has an antiandrogenic effect and hence improves hirsutism [10]. The use of spironolactone in adolescents still needs further clinical study. Breast tenderness and menstrual irregularities have been reported when it is used long term. Pregnancy should be avoided during its use, and it is suggested that spironolactone be used in combination with oral contraceptives in order to improve clinical effectiveness [10].


Progestogens such as medroxyprogesterone acetate, norethisterone, dydrogesterone, and progesterone are useful in managing adolescents whose main complaints are irregularities in menstrual cycles with no evidence of hyperandrogenemia. Progestogens are given on a cyclical basis for 14 days every month in order to ensure withdrawal bleeding. Therapeutic treatment with progestogens protects against endometrial cancer caused by prolonged estrogenic action [10].

Cosmetic Measures

Young girls with diagnosis of PCOS and clinically evident hirsutism can seek cosmetic therapy such as laser photoepilation to eliminate unwanted hair [59].

Psychosocial Interview

A psychosocial interview should take into consideration the psychological aspects of the adolescent by way of using psychosocial screening tools such as interviewing the adolescent regarding several of such factors: education, employment, eating, exercise, peers, and mental health. The assessment of these factors needs to be the basis for the management plan [60]. The quality of life in young women with PCOS is affected by several factors such as weight gain, acne, hirsutism, stress due to menstrual irregularities , and worries about future ability to have children. This can lower their self-esteem and confidence and leave them feeling self-conscious. Motivational interviewing techniques should be used. The clinician should address the concerns of the adolescent first, ask about their plan of lifestyle changes, and then review the steps and address any barriers [60]. This approach along with pharmacological management can help improve clinical outcomes in adolescent girls with PCOS.


PCOS is a heterogeneous disease characterized by endocrine, reproductive, metabolic, and psychosocial abnormalities. The disease has hereditary risk factors and a complex pathogenesis. The hormonal and metabolic changes that normally occur during peripubertal period should be differentiated from the clinical features of PCOS before diagnosing the disease in adolescents. It is important to manage the disease to avoid complications such as impaired glucose tolerance, mental health issues, and long-term complications such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, hypertension, increased cardiovascular risk, infertility, and endometrial hyperplasia leading to endometrial cancer. Specific diagnostic criteria and optimal diagnostic methods to specifically screen adolescents should be established. A more holistic approach involving the psychosocial support to the adolescent along with lifestyle modifications and pharmacological management will result in improved clinical outcomes in the management of adolescent girls with PCOS.



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