Today, I tackle a body part upon which I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert. Had my left ovary behaved years ago, I would not be typing this today–and I would still have both ovaries. Speaking with other women, it becomes obvious very quickly that we tend to know very little about our ovaries. Hopefully, I will shed some light on this for you today!
Where are the ovaries? It’s safe to say we know they’re in our pelvis, but where exactly? A good estimate is to make a triangle with with your index fingers and thumbs and place that over your pelvis with the index fingers pointing downward. In the upper corners is about where your ovaries are. (They tend to be a bit lower and more centralized than most assume they are.) The ovaries are held in place by a network of ligaments which also attach to the uterus and Fallopian tubes. The ovaries are not connected directly to the Fallopian tubes. Many diagrams shows the fimbriae (the leafy looking parts on the far left and right below) of the Fallopian tubes as been directly adjacent to the ovaries, which leads many to believe that the ovaries are directly attached to them. They are not. (Read more about the relationship between the ovaries and the Fallopian tubes in the section about Fallopian tubes.)
The ovaries are, ironically, shaped like eggs but are smaller than the chicken eggs that one typically purchases at the grocery. The ovaries are about the size of a walnut, are slightly pearl colored, and have bumpy, soft surfaces. The ovaries are responsible for producing a variety of sex hormones. At birth, the ovaries of a healthy baby girl contain between one and two million eggs. By the time puberty begins, most of these have wasted away leaving about 300,000 eggs–plenty for the reproductive lifespan. Thus, a woman has a finite number of eggs, but men have a different mechanism that continually makes sperm. This is why women have “childbearing” years, but men can father children throughout their adult lives.
The eggs have a complicated lifespan before they are even released for potential fertilization. The term “egg” is generic and refers to a single cell’s journey through maturation. Before maturation, the egg is referred to as an oocyte. Once it finishes maturing (see diagram below), it becomes an ovum and three polar bodies. The polar bodies are actually inside of the ovum and serve to “fuel” the egg once it is fertilized continuing cell division and replication before it implants in the uterine lining (where it forms a network of blood vessels that forms the placenta and umbilical cord).
Each month, the ovaries usually release one mature egg (not one from each). The ovaries are covered in cells called follicles and within each follicle is a single egg. Once an egg is matured, the process of ovulation can begin. During this time, the follicle that houses the mature egg expands and eventually ruptures forcing the egg outward. This rupturing is completely normal–it would be abnormal for ovarian follicles to never rupture, and in fact some women can actually feel a quick pain when the rupture occurs. The diagram below is an illustration of the ovulation process, beginning in the upper-left hand corner and going clockwise.
Following a woman’s “childbearing” years, the ovaries continue to play an important role. For years, many doctors prescribed a surgery called a hysterectomy to remove the ovaries (as well as the uterus and Fallopian tubes) once a woman was finished having children. This was performed to prevent cancer from developing. However, we now know that ovarian cancer can actually develop anyway after the ovaries have been removed. This is because the ovaries share tissue with the internal cavity that remains following a hysterectomy. Leaving the ovaries intact provides a number of hormonal benefits throughout menopause that are difficult to replace. Thus, the benefits of leaving the ovaries intact often outweigh the drawbacks. (This is something that should be discussed with a physician, because each individual has a different medical history that will affect any such decision.)
There is a lot more that could be said about ovaries, but let’s save that for another day. Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of how the ovaries work!