Introduction to the Cervix

The word cervix has only recently come to refer almost exclusively to the portion of the uterus that narrows between the vagina and the body of the uterus (corpus uteri). Cervix is from the Latin for “neck” and uterus is from the Latin for “womb.” Thus, the cervix is the neck of the womb–strange imagery, non? Anyway, what exactly is it that the cervix does? Does it do anything special if it is only an extension of the uterus? Of course it does something special!

The cervix, during an average menstrual cycle, goes through several important changes. Generally the cervix is stiff (like the texture of your nose) and positioned high with a small opening. However, during ovulation, the cervix becomes softer and lower with a wider opening. This quality of the cervix during ovulation promotes the movement of the sperm in their upward journey toward the released ovum (egg). Also, during orgasm the cervix convulses. Some research has linked this movement of the cervix as an evolutionary means of improving the chances of conception, though other scientists have argued that there is no correlation between cervical orgasm and increased rates of conception. So, just because you don’t orgasm during sex doesn’t mean you won’t get pregnant or are any less likely to get pregnant. The cervix also produces the mucus or normal vaginal discharge that varies over a woman’s menstrual cycle.

The cervix also plays a key role in detecting gynecological cancers. As discussed yesterday, the cervix is the object of Pap smears testing for cancerous and pre-cancerous cells. In this procedure–if you are unfamiliar, in which case you need to get a Pap smear A.S.A.P.–a clinician collects epithelial cells from the cervix and sends them to a lab where they are studied for abnormalities. The greatest cause of cervical cancer, the most common form of gynecological cancer, is the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV has also been proven to cause neck cancer (remember the Latin lesson?). Thankfully, researchers at my own university helped discover a vaccine that prevents most types of HPV and thus prevents most incidences of cervical cancer. So when you are getting that Pap smear make sure to ask about getting an HPV vaccine.

The cervix also plays an integral part in the maintaining of a pregnancy. During pregnancy, the cervix develops a mucus plug that secures the fetus, placenta, and the amniotic fluid from bacteria and other “intruders.” Close to delivery the cervix begins to thin (or can be thinned by pharmaceuticals such as Cervidil, a formulation of dinoprostone) in preparation for birth. The uterus contracts during labor to widen the opening of the cervix up to ten centimeters in order to allow the passage of the baby through the cervix down into the birth canal.

Some women have weaker than average cervices and require a procedure called a cerclage during pregnancy in order to bolster the cervix’s support of the growing fetus. A new method has recently been developed to make a cerclage more effective by entering through the abdomen rather than the vagina. A cerclage, essentially, sutures the cervix in order to make it firmer for the duration of the pregnancy. The cerclage should be undone before the onset of labor in order to keep the cervix from rupturing. Elective cerclage is extremely effective (around 90% success) though emergency cerclage is less effective (usually because the cervix has dilated too much) at about 50% success.

Well, that is a brief outline of the functions of the cervix. The cervix is quite an interesting and indispensable part of our bodies. Do you have more to add or have a burning question? Leave it in the comments, thanks!

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4 thoughts on “Introduction to the Cervix

  1. I am learning more about my body from this blog than I ever have from a doctor…just throwing that out there.

    I would also like to throw out there that the cervix (or at least mine) does not like to be forced open. While having a trans-vaginal ultrasound (p.s. not a bad idea to have one), the doctor decided to do a procedure that required my cervix to open- and it wouldn’t…..

  2. Yes, oddly enough I didn’t have my first trans-vaginal ultrasound until well after my tumor was removed. Weird, eh? But I think they are really good–they are, currently (in my opinion), the best method of finding gynecological cancers besides cervical. Unfortunately they are expensive and insurance does not like to pick up the tab. There has been a trend recently among insurance companies to allow women to get an ultrasound of the breast along with a mammogram, making MUCH more likely that a cancer will be detected. Hopefully, this will spill over and insurance companies will extend this to women’s abdomens.

    Cervices certainly don’t want to be opened. They are so stubborn. They do only what they want and only when they want to do it. But they’re still useful. Oh, and when I have had trans-vaginal ultrasounds my remaining ovary likes to float away from the wand making it extra-hard to image. I have so much left over space after the tumor it’s like having an olympic-size pool to paddle away in. The technicians always make me get in the most bizarre positions to get my ovary to sit still. It’s like practicing the Kama Sutra vicariously–condom included!

  3. Isn’t Fran Drescher and Cancer Schmancer pushing for/advocating a bill that would require a trans-vaginal ultrasound as part of a yearly gynelogical exam and insurance is require to pay it? Maybe I hallucinated that….

    I would also like to add that if they sold whatever they lubed the probe(?) up with for the trans-vaginal OTC, certain things would be so much easier….

  4. To any and all interested in knowing exactly what a cervix looks like I found this link:

    http://mybeautifulcervix.googlepages.com/

    Be warned: if you’re not ready to see an actual cervix (33 photos depicting the phases of the cervix) then you should probably steer clear.

    PS: Yes, Cancer Schmancer is pushing for that in California–I kind of think it passed earlier this year. On the national level they helped push Johanna’s Law through Congress which increased funding for education and awareness of gynecological cancers. Hopefully they will push for ultrasounds on the national level. They bring a lot of attention to the issue.

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