Ovaries

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!

The Big C: Cancer–The Disease in a Nutshell

Cancer is arguably the most feared disease in the Western world.  In America, cancer is the leading cause of death of people between 35-65 years of age.  Nearly 1 in 7 deaths worldwide in 2007 was due to cancer.  Cancer rates are exploding throughout the world as developing nations industrialize and eat diets that are less nutritious (think of pollution and McDonald’s).  Because of physiological and social reasons, gynecological cancers are some of the most lethal types of cancer in women.  To better understand gynecological cancers, let’s take a step back and get to grips with the basics of cancer.

Cancer is a disease affecting humans, and other animals, that is a result of abnormal cells growing out of control.  Cancer can happen in virtually any part of the body and there are more than 100 distinct types.  The cells in our bodies are continually regenerating.  There is a saying that our bodies completely regenerate every seven years.  (In fact, each type of cell–each part of the body– regenerates at a different pace.)  When our bodies dictate the script (DNA being the script) that causes cell reproduction, occasionally there is a typo.  Many different things (such as smoking) can cause a “typo.”  When this happens, the body has difficulty righting the mistake and it can grow out of control resulting in cancer as seen in this illustration:


The top half of the illustration is a process called apoptosis, by which a damaged cell is removed through programmed cell death.  (I jokingly think of apoptosis as telling a “bad cell” to “pop off.”)  A lack of apoptosis is when the damaged cells are not programmed out.  This is where cancer begins.

If this growth of abnormal cells is caught in an early stage, it usually can be treated easily by removing the growth.*  Stages are a means by which the cancerous growths can be classified by how far along it has progressed.  There are four main stages, and with specific types of cancers there are further subdivisions such as “Stage II-C.”  Usually by the time a cancerous growth has reached the fourth, most advanced stage it has undergone a process called metastasis.

Metastasis is when the cancer spreads from its primary site to other sites.  So, if you hear an official cancer diagnosis, it may sound something like, “metastatic breast cancer” or “metastatic cancer primary to the liver.”  This indicates where the cancer began and that it is present in other locations.  Metastasis usually occurs through the body’s lymphatic system.  That’s why one often hears about lymph nodes in relation to cancer.

There are innumerable ways in which cancer is diagnosed.  Once it is found and diagnosed, there is a great divergence between how cancer behaves and how it is best treated depending on the type of cancer, medical history, and other factors.  If you ever find yourself receiving a cancer diagnosis, you will need to create a very specific plan with your physicians–no two diagnoses are ever exactly identical.  Hopefully this brief overview of the Big C helps build your understanding of the disease if you ever find yourself in close contact with cancer.

*(In my case, I had a very slow-growing cancer.  So, even though it was not caught at all “early,” it was still in an early stage.)

The Uterus

Pound for pound, the uterus is the strongest muscle in the human body. The uterus weighs about 40 ounces (2.5 pounds; 1.1 kg) and is about the size of a pear when not pregnant. Yet, in the process of giving birth, the uterus can exert over 100 pounds of force (440 newtons). The uterus is responsible for protecting and nursing a growing fetus during a pregnancy, and also for pushing that fetus out when it’s time to give birth. Let’s further explore this great muscular feat of nature–the human uterus.

The word uterus comes from Latin meaning “womb” or “stomach.”  It is an organ particular to mammals.  The human uterus consists of two parts:  the main body, generally just called the uterus, and the narrow “neck” called the cervix (Latin for “neck”).  In humans, the uterus is labeled as simplex because it is generally a single (simple) compartment, but sometimes the uterus does not end up like this.  When a female fetus is developing in the womb, it starts out initially as an organ shaped like a V–as though the cervix has two horn-shaped compartments.  As the fetus develops, the horns will generally fused into one, “simplex” uterus.  About 6.7% of the time, though, this does not happen resulting in a malformed uterus.

The most common type of malformation is the bicornuate (or “two-horned”) uterus.   Other malformations include unicornuate (“one-horned”) uterus, double uterus (two whole, functioning uteruses), and absent uterus (where the uterus fails to develop at all).  Each of these malformations has its own set of issues, and a medical professional can help counsel a person with a malformed uterus.

The uterus consists of three main “layers,” much like the different layers of skin.  The innermost layer on the inside of the uterus is called the endometrium.  It is a temporary layer that builds up and jettisons away over the course of a menstrual cycle.  The middle layer is called the myometrium.  This is the main, muscular layer of the uterus and consists of smooth muscle mass.  The outermost layer is referred to as the perimetrium.  It is a thin membrane that secretes serous fluid.

Uterus IllustrationIn the reproductive cycle, the uterus receives the egg after it has been fertilized while traveling down the Fallopian tube (labeled here as the uterine tube).  Once the fertilized egg is in the uterus, it will usually implant in the endometrial lining of the uterus (that is normally shed when a woman has her period).  From this implantation, the uterus and the embryo form a network of blood vessels that exist only during the pregnancy.  This is called the placenta and is what the umbilical cord is attached to.

The uterus, besides being key to the reproductive cycle, is also important in the sexual response cycle.  It directs blood flow toward the pelvis and outer genitalia during sex. This directed flow of blood happens during arousal and allows for sex to be pleasurable to the woman.  The uterus is also involved in a somewhat rare type of orgasm called, of course, the uterine orgasm.

The uterus is, arguably, the most central organ to not only reproduction but also sexual response.  Take good care of your uterus and go to the gynecologist for your regular check-up!  Have questions or comments?  Let’s hear ’em.

The First Visit to the Gynecologist: A Guide (Part Two)

Finding Eve returns with Part Two of this first-timer’s guide.  (Click here for Part One.)

During your appointment:

  1. LISTEN!  You will be given a series of instructions throughout your appointment.  Things will generally be more comfortable for you if you follow them.  They may want the paper gown to open in the front or the back or the side.  They may want you sitting, standing, lying on your back.  Just pay attention and things will go much more smoothly.
  2. Be vocal.  Now that you’re getting into the stirrups and down to business, it’s up to you to make sure your doctor knows how you feel.  For example, if you have a bad back and lying a certain way hurts, let the doctor know she or he will usually be happy to accommodate.
  3. Remember your breasts.  Most, but not all, gynecologists will give your breasts a once-over to check for lumps, bumps, and irregularities.  So, be prepared for this.  This might be the most awkward you’ll feel since the doctor will be nearly face-to-face with you at this point.
  4. Be prepared for some unusual sensations.  No matter your level of comfort with your genitalia, your first appointment with the OB/GYN will be something new.  The doctor will need to insert a few things in your vagina.  It’s an unavoidably strange situation, but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare, so be prepared for the following:
  • The first thing in will generally be a speculum.  This is a device that goes in to spread the vaginal walls to allow the doctor to see in.  There will be bright lights focused on your vagina to aid in this.  While the doctor looks around, she or he will also use a swab to take a sample of cells from your cervix.  You’ll barely be able to feel the swab, so don’t be too worried about it.  The swab is then sent away for testing to see if you have (pre-)cancerous cells.  This is called a Pap smear.  REMEMBER, this only tests for one type of gynecologic cancer (cervical).  Keeping track of your periods and pelvic health is your best bet for detecting other types of cancer.
  • After the swab for the Pap smear has been collected the doctor will “manipulate” your pelvis.  That is to say, it’s time for the rough and tumble part of the exam.  Really, it is not as bad as it sounds or may look in the diagram below.  (Believe me, I have had several severe pelvic surgeries and I make it through the pelvic manipulation fine.)  This, to me, is the most important part of the exam.  The doctor is using her or his hands to “see” what’s inside you and to make sure all is well.  It’s normal to grimace.  It’s not the most normal feeling, but it will soon be over!
  • Ask questions!  Generally, after the manual exam, the doctor says you can sit up.  This is your invitation to ask questions.  Since this is your first time, you should ask as many questions as you want.  Many doctors’ offices will schedule first-timers with longer appointments because they expect the patients to have more questions.  Don’t be shy.  If there is any thing that you don’t understand or have reservations about below the belt, ASK!  The doctor will be able to help explain whatever it may be, and this will put your mind at ease.

    After your appointment:

  1. Follow through!  If the doctor recommends that you take care of yourself with some therapy, medicine, or change, do it.  If it is something drastic, feel free to go to another doctor for a second opinion.  It is your body, after all.
  2. If you are having testing for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), you may be asked to make another appointment at a lab.  Larger doctors’ offices usually have their own lab, so you may be escorted across the hall to have blood taken.  If you’re afraid of having blood drawn, be prepared!  Drawing blood is crucial to many standard gynecological tests, so don’t be worried if you’re referred for blood work.
  3. Keep in touch.  You will most likely receive your test results (Pap smear, blood work, etc.) in the mail or over the phone in the subsequent two week.  If, after 2-4 weeks, you have not heard anything, call your doctor’s office!  You paid for those tests, so you have the right to know how they turned out.   Things can get lost in the mail or misplaced, so take the reins and find out.  The office staff won’t begrudge you at all.
  4. Remember to make an appointment for next year.  You should never go more than a year without a visit to the gynecologist’s.  Most insurance will only cover one visit in a 365 day period, so if you went on May 1st one year, you will have to wait until least May 1st of the next year.

Remember, this guide is intended as a rough guide to your first visit.  No two appointments will ever be identical.  It is important to do what is right for you.  Please feel free to add your comments and questions and thanks for reading!

Endometriosis

In the past two weeks, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone mention in conversation “endometriosis.” I have several friends and family members who have endometriosis, so it is not an altogether unfamiliar subject to me. However, I have never given much thought to endometriosis.   So, in writing this blog entry I hope to educate both myself and my readers a bit.

To start with the root, the word endometriosis comes from the Greek words meaning “inside” and “womb.”  Remember that the endometrium is the layer lining the uterus.  Here is a diagram:

The endometrium is where the embryo implants after it has been fertilized, so it is an integral part of reproducing.  Without a healthy endometrium, an embryo is not likely to implant successfully.

Interestingly, too many endometrial cells are a bad thing, and this is what endometriosis is:  the proliferation (spread) of endometrial cells outside of the uterus, especially common on the ovaries.  These cells respond as the endometrium does to hormonal changes over the course of a menstrual cycle.  So, imagine that you have endometrial cells throughout your pelvis and not just in your uterus.  Menstrual cramps would be amplified–the pain difficult to bear.  So, if you have particularly unmanageable menstrual pain during your period, please visit your doctor.  You may have a disorder such as endometriosis.  Only investigation by a medical professional can determine the source of the pain.

It is estimated that between 5-10 percent of women are affected by endometriosis.  Its effects generally do not manifest until menarche (first menstrual cycle) and usually diminish following menopause, though not always.  A large number of women who are infertile are infertile because of endometriosis (about 20-50%).  The proportion of women with chronic pelvic pain who suffer from endometriosis is much higher (about 80%).  There seems to be an increase in incidence of endometriosis in families that affected by it.  Women with an immediate relative with endometriosis has a higher risk of having endometriosis.  There is some association between endometriosis and certain types of cancer (especially ovarian), so it is important to know if you have endometriosis or if you have another malady with similar symptoms.

Endometriosis usually appears in patches within the pelvis that are often visible to the human eye during surgery because they can appear as darkened bluish-black spots.  Here is a diagram example of endometriosis:

Not all endometriosis appears as darkened spots, so it is necessary sometime to perform biopsies to be certain.  Endometriosis causes an inflammatory response that often causes scar tissue.  This scar tissue is frequently problematic in a variety of ways, including being the cause of infertility.  The cause of endometriosis is, so far, unknown but it is believed that there is more than one possible cause.  Hopefully, further research will uncover causes that can help in management and treatment of the disease.  Symptoms, too, can vary widely across endometriosis sufferers.  Abdominal pain being the most common symptom, others include:

  • nausea, vomiting, fainting, dizzy spells
  • frequent or constant menstrual flow
  • chronic fatigue
  • heavy or long uncontrollable menstrual periods with small or large blood clots
  • mood swings
  • pain in legs and thighs
  • back pain
  • mild to extreme pain during intercourse
  • mild to severe fever
  • headaches
  • depression
  • Again, it is important to remember that other disorders can have similar symptoms to endometriosis.  It is crucial to consult a doctor if you are experiencing problems in order to accurately determine what you have.  Never rely on an “Internet diagnosis.”  This article is just scratching the surface of this topic (maybe I will write “Endometriosis:  Part 2”), so please feel free to leave comments and questions!

    Fallopian Tubes

    What springs to mind when Fallopian tubes are mentioned?  That they “connect” the ovaries to the uterus which leads finally to the vagina and the outside of the body?  Perhaps you think about ectopic pregnancies, as most ectopic pregnancies are indeed “tubal” pregnancies.  Whatever you may think of when Fallopian tubes are brought up, they are some of the least considered and understood parts of a woman’s reproductive tract.  Besides connecting the uterus and ovaries, do they do anything else?  Are they homologous to any part of the male anatomy?  Let’s try to answer some of the most common questions about Fallopian tubes.

    First, where does the name “Fallopian” come from?  Unlike most parts of a woman’s reproductive system, this name does not come from Latin or Greek.  The Fallopian tubes are named for Gabriele Falloppio, a 16th-century Italian anatomist.  The canal through which the facial nerve runs after leaving the auditory cochlear nerve is also named after him–the aquaeductus Fallopii.

    Back to the subject, why are the Fallopian tubes so often ignored?  Perhaps it has something to do with the lack of pathology or disease associated with the Fallopian tubes.  The most common maladies associated with the Fallopian tubes are, indeed, tubal (ectopic) pregnancy and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).  (To read about two cases of rare ectopic pregnancies, click here.)  Ectopic  pregnancies are estimated to account for less than two of every one-hundred pregnancies.  PID is estimated to occur in nearly one in seven women in the United States.  PID accounts for a large number of all ectopic pregnancies, especially tubal.  Other disease are very rare in the Fallopian tubes.  Cancer, for example, is extremely rare and when it occurs it is often the result of adjacent cancer (such as ovarian).

    So, what does a Fallopian tube look like?

    The above sketch shows the different parts of the Fallopian tubes.  The fimbriae are the fringe-like extensions from the ostium of the Fallopian tube.   During ovulation, hormones stimulate the fimbriae to make a gentle sweeping motion against the ovaries to pull the released egg (or ovum) into the Fallopian tube.  The ovary and Fallopian are not actually connected to each other.  The ostium is where the fimbriae end and the Fallopian tube begins.  The infundibulum is the wider end of the Fallopian tube that narrows into the ampulla, which is the twisting portion of the tube in the above sketch.  It is where most fertilizations occur.  The ampulla continues into the isthmus, the shortest and most narrow portion of the Fallopian tube.  The pars uterina is the place where the uterus and Fallopian tube connects.

    This sketch indicates better how the Fallopian tubes, uterus, and ovaries are all connected (or, in fact, not connected).  Most human Fallopian tubes are between seven and fourteen centimeters in length. Once an egg has entered the Fallopian tube, the mucosal cilia of the Fallopian tube move the egg towards the uterus.  The cilia are finger-like projects that sweep or push.  (Cilia are also found in the windpipe and sweep mucus and dust away from the lungs.)  Finally, Fallopian tubes are not homologous to any structure in the male body, thus they are completely unique to the female body.  (The ovaries, for example, are homologous to testes in males.)

    Now, hopefully you and I both know a little more about the Fallopian tubes.  Want to know more or already know more and want to share it?  Please, don’t be shy!

    Hormonal Differences

    If you are anything like me and read the medical headlines every day you have probably noticed in the past few weeks a spate of articles about how hormones can affect a person’s social behavior.  The first such article was a timely piece, considering the state of the economy, that argues that the length of a person’s ring finger in relation to his or her index finger is indicative of his or her responsiveness to testosterone in the womb, and thus this measure correlates with how well the person is suited to financial trading. (Oddly, the Washington Post categorizes this article under “Women’s Health.”)

    Specifically, these researchers say, the longer one’s ring finger in relation to the index finger the more likely it is that this person will be successful at financial trading.  Scientists are hailing this as “completely new and novel in terms of showing how sex hormones impact the brain.”  (Though there have been other studies that argue that sex hormones in the womb influence sexual orientation and anorexia.)  The trials performed in this study only examined men.  While it is possible that this effect also influences such behavior in women, it is unlikely to affect women as often as men since women naturally have less testosterone than men.

    However, another article came out on the heels of this study arguing that higher amounts of estrogen (as an effect from the womb) cause women to not only feel more attractive and be perceived as more attractive but also to cheat on their partners more often.  The study showed that women with high levels of estradiol, a type of estrogen, were more likely to “dress more provocatively and show more thrill-seeking behavior.”  Interestingly, the likelihood of cheating on a partner was shown to take the form of monogamous affairs rather than one-night stands.  These women with higher estradiol are generally more fertile and therefore are hypothesized to biologically be programmed to continually look for other, better mates.  One of the researchers said, “Our results are consistent with the possibility that highly fertile women are not easily satisfied by their long-term partners and are especially motivated to become acquainted with other, presumably more desirable, men.”

    Prenatal hormones and their effects have been known for years to play a great role in sexual differentiation.  Levels of testosterone and other factors in the womb can contribute to an XY-karyotype (or genetic boy) being born as a phenotypical female (with the appearance of female genitalia).  Research is constantly discovering more along these lines, such as the perceived psychological differences between males and females (i. e., men are from Mars, women are from Venus), including cognitive performance.  In light of these discoveries, many people cling to the notion that many of these naturally occurring situations are, rather, a result of nurture (e. g., a woman who cheats on her partner does so because of the way she was reared).

    So, what do you think about all of this?  I would love to hear any or all questions or comments.  Thanks!