Thanks to “Dr. Google,” it is all too easy nowadays for people (read: non-medical professionals) to attempt their own diagnoses. When it comes to Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), for example, one quick “PCOS self-assessment” Google search results in countless “Do I Have PCOS?” questionnaires.
PCOS occurs when the ovaries produce an abnormal amount of androgens (aka male sex hormones), usually resulting in numerous small cysts. This condition is one of the more common causes of infertility in women, and unfortunately, there is no cure — although treatments are available to help reduce symptoms and prevent other health issues.
What are some common symptoms of PCOS?
Common symptoms of PCOS include irregular or no periods, and “having signs of high androgens such as hair growth in an androgenic pattern – such as on the chin/jaw, upper lip, chest, legs and with potentially thicker/coarser hair,” says Jessica Ryniec, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist with CCRM Boston. She also points out that “hair loss or thinning on the scalp,” could be possible PCOS symptoms. “Other associated symptoms that are not part of the diagnostic criteria but can occur with PCOS” are “metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance or diabetes, weight gain or difficulty losing weight, mood symptoms, and fatigue.”
That’s a lot of potential symptoms to sort through, and while it’s becoming increasingly more important for patients to be their own healthcare advocates, that doesn’t mean you should replace a physician’s diagnosis with an online quiz. It’s not entirely surprising, however, that there’s been an explosion of PCOS self-assessments on the internet: This is likely because there is no single test to diagnose this particular condition, not to mention the number of possible symptoms.
PCOS online quizzes generally ask questions pertaining to your menstrual cycle, whether you have acne or excess hair growth, family medical history, and if you’re trying to conceive. So, if you are experiencing a common symptom of PCOS, such as irregular periods or atypical hair growth, is it worth taking one of these online PCOS self-assessments, at least as a preliminary step? Read on for Dr. Ryniec’s thoughts on the effectiveness of do-it-yourself PCOS questionnaires.
Labcorp OnDemand Women’s Fertility Package (Ovarian Reserve Test)
Are there any benefits to taking an online PCOS self-assessment?
As long as you understand the difference between information and a diagnosis, there isn’t any direct harm in doing an online PCOS self-assessment. “These quizzes may be a helpful way to start thinking about whether or not you may have PCOS,” says Dr. Ryniec. In fact, depending on which quiz you take, some of these self-assessments could help you figure out what questions to ask your doctor. But, Dr. Ryniec is quick to emphasize that “there is no online quiz or self-assessment that can actually make the diagnosis for you.” If you suspect you might have PCOS after doing an online quiz, seeing your doctor should be the next step in the process.
Why is a doctor’s diagnosis necessary?
Although PCOS has a set of three diagnostic criteria, Dr. Ryniec explains that “ruling out any other causes for your symptoms” is an important part of the process as well. “An online quiz or self-assessment may help indicate whether you meet some of the diagnostic criteria,” she says, specifically if the patient is experiencing irregular ovulation/periods or elevated androgens (e.g., acne or excess hair growth on the face, chest, or abdomen). But there are a few other areas that must be evaluated directly by a physician: A PCOS self-assessment “cannot assess whether or not you have polycystic ovaries,” stresses Dr. Ryniec. This can only be determined via an ultrasound, which, she says, is the third diagnostic criteria. In addition, a PCOS self-assessment “can’t rule out other medical problems that can lead to your symptoms.”
I did a PCOS self-assessment. Now what?
If you’ve determined that you’re experiencing some of the more common symptoms of PCOS, it’s time to make an appointment with your doctor: “A healthcare provider can help go through [your] concerns and determine if you do meet clinical criteria, consider an ultrasound to look at the ovaries if felt to be helpful in the diagnosis, and do specific blood tests to rule out other potential causes of the symptoms such as thyroid dysfunction and others,” says Dr. Ryniec.
While an online self-assessment for PCOS might provide supplemental information at best, nothing can replace a physician’s diagnosis. “It is critical to get evaluated by a physician, ideally one who specializes in reproductive or medical endocrinology to avoid misdiagnosis and make sure the right treatments and management are considered,” advises Dr. Ryniec.
She also underscores the importance of receiving a diagnosis from a specialist in reproductive or medical endocrinology, because misdiagnosis can sometimes occur with other medical professionals: “I see people all the time who come with a self-diagnosis or even a tentative diagnosis of PCOS from other providers — and they do not actually have the syndrome. This can lead to more confusion and frustration/stress, which is never good!”
Dr. Ryniec recommends aligning yourself with a specialist who can “evaluate, educate, and treat/manage PCOS,” because working with the right provider “leads to better outcomes and helps you be better informed about what is going on” in your body.
“Dr. Google” may be a good starting point, but no website can ever take the place of an informed physician and supportive medical team.
holds an M.S. in Professional Writing from NYU, and is a seasoned journalist, having written and reported on subjects ranging from TV and pop culture to health, wellness, and parenting over the course of her career. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, Vulture, SheKnows, and numerous other outlets. A staunch mental health advocate, Sarene also hosts the podcast “Emotional Abuse Is Real.” Visit her website here, or follow her on Instagram or Twitter.