The complex-sounding condition known as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) likely affects more of a bodyworker’s clientele than previously realized. Without attempts to control this syndrome, the continuation of PCOS increases the risk of complications such as diabetes and heart disease. While there is no quick fix for this increasingly common problem, its early recognition can prompt help from medications, surgery and lifestyle modifications. In addition, bodyworkers including reflexology in their repertoire can directly support the healing process of those managing PCOS.
Aside from being the leading cause of infertility in women, polycystic ovary syndrome affects an estimated one in 10 women of childbearing age in the United States. Primarily characterized by irregular menstrual periods, infertility, excess hair growth and obesity, women with PCOS generally have numerous cysts in their ovaries.
Although the exact cause is unknown, polycystic ovary syndrome stems from a disruption in a woman’s monthly reproductive cycle. A typical menstrual cycle involves the maturation of one egg-holding follicle for ovulation. A woman with PCOS has multiple follicles growing in their ovaries, and often doesn’t produce the right proportion of hormones to mature just one follicle. Without a matured follicle, ovulation does not occur. In addition, the immature follicles are likely to become cysts and subsequently produce male hormones. This absence of ovulation is the culprit of an irregular or absent menstrual cycle.
Women with polycystic ovary syndrome usually have at least several of following symptoms:
- Irregular or absent menstruation – The most typical symptom of PCOS, menstrual cycles occurring at intervals longer than 35 days or fewer than eight times a year are suspect. This problem could begin in adolescence with the onset of menstruation, or it may appear later after a weight gain.
- Excessive androgens – In women with PCOS, elevated levels of male hormones are typical. This hormone imbalance may result in coarse hair on the face, chest, lower abdomen, back, upper arms or upper legs; acne; and male-pattern baldness. However, not all women who have PCOS have physical signs of androgen excess.
- Enlarged, cystic ovaries – Although it seems that this symptom would be obvious, some women with PCOS have ovaries that appear normal.
- Infertility – Likely due to the absence of ovulation, PCOS is the most common cause of female infertility in the United States.
- Obesity – Experts estimate that about 50 percent of women with PCOS are obese.
- Skin tags – Typically found on the neck or in the armpits, these small, excess growths of skin are often present on women with PCOS.
- Diabetic tendencies – Having or being at high risk for type 2 diabetes impairs the body’s effective use of insulin. While insulin resistance results in high blood sugar levels, it has also been shown to increase the risk of PCOS.
- Acanthosis nigricans – Common in PCOS, this skin condition occurs when the velvety skin on the nape of the neck, armpits, inner thighs, vulva or underneath the breasts is darkened.
Additionally, the following are more likely to occur in women with PCOS:
- High blood pressure
- High blood cholesterol
- Elevated levels of C-reactive protein
- Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis
- Sleep apnea
Help for PCOS
Although there is no cure for PCOS, physicians typically advise a combination of approaches to relieve symptoms, increase fertility (if desired) and reduce the risk for heart disease and diabetes. The most common methods include:
- Medications – These may include birth control pills, diabetes medications, fertility aids and anti-androgen drugs.
- Ovarian surgery – In addition to its inherent risks, surgical intervention is not a cure for PCOS.
- Lifestyle changes – Achieving a 10 percent loss in body weight with exercise and good nutrition can restore ovarian health.
In addition to these interventions used by allopathic medical professionals, massage therapists who practice reflexology have a specific tool for reducing PCOS severity.
By using finger and thumb pressure to stimulate points on the feet, reflexologists can promote balance in the internal organs. Specifically for women managing PCOS, the pituitary, uterus and ovary reflex points on the feet are likely to be sensitive. While it is important to communicate with clients about the level of pressure being used to maintain their comfort, stimulating these points has the capacity to benefit polycystic ovaries.
From 2004 to 2005, the Danish Association of Reflexologists conducted a research study to determine if reflexology could help women with PCOS. Due to an average decrease in cycle length and average reduction in number of ovarian follicles in the women receiving reflexology, the investigators concluded that reflexology is a solid candidate as a PCOS complementary therapy.
With an estimated 10 percent of American women living with PCOS, bodyworkers are highly likely to encounter this condition. For women who have not had their symptoms evaluated by a physician, a massage therapist aware of the prevalence and signs of PCOS may be the first to recognize it as a possible cause of his or her client’s complaints. Under such circumstances, a referral for an ob/gyn visit would be appropriate. By explaining that an increase in daily physical activity prevents insulin resistance, which directly improves gynecological health, you can encourage your clients to take this lifestyle change seriously. Adding even more therapeutic value, bodyworkers seeing clients with a suspected or confirmed case of PCOS can use foot reflexology to help restore their ovaries to a healthy, balanced state.