Throughout the process of pregnancy or when trying to conceive, a woman doesn’t always know much about her own reproductive system, or what is happening inside the body. Sure, we all get super excited about that pee stick announcing we’ve got a baby inside, but unless we paid attention in middle school health class, we are usually pretty clueless. Well, if that clueless state defines you, then you are not alone.
“What the heck is a cervix, anyway?” That’s the question I asked my nurse after she had told me that my cervix was broken. Unless you are a medical professional, most of us don’t have a clue what’s going on inside our bodies. We know how to make a baby, and that’s about the extent of it. A lot of times that’s a good thing—we don’t always want to know. But, speaking from experience, the health of your cervix is not something you want to ignore.
Turns out, the cervix has a lot to do with protecting your baby when pregnant, and it also has a lot to do with protecting you. Yet, it also has some potential to cause some pretty serious problems if you don’t pay any attention to it. Pap smears and check ups are paramount to a woman’s reproductive health, and taking care of yourself is important if you want to live a long and healthy life.
A good place to start educating yourself about your cervix is by reading the following 15 WTF facts about the cervix most people don’t know, which could save your life, or the life of your baby.
15 What The Heck Is A Cervix?
The cervix is a narrow, funnel-like neck of tissue that forms the lower end of the uterus, and connects the uterus to the vagina. It looks a little bit like a bagel when viewed from the vagina through a speculum, with the 'bagel hole' representing the opening of the cervix. The cervix opens slightly during menstruation, but it can also close completely during pregnancy, developing a mucous membrane called the mucous plug, which helps to keep the baby inside during pregnancy. The cervix is also capable of dilating to 10 cm during labor, and this is the canal from which the baby emerges from the uterus, passing through the vagina, and into your arms. This all may seem a bit TMI for the average woman, but the cervix is actually a pretty amazing part of a woman's reproductive system, and is worth taking a closer look, if you are not too squeamish.
14 What Does A Cervix Do, Anyway?
Women start menstruating at a very young age, and we all know the results of the uterus shedding it's lining—a whole lot of blood and cramps and misery. With all that misery, you would think we women would investigate the cause of our pain, but we don’t. I know I certainly never thought much about the passage that carries that flood of life-giving blood out of my body, but that's one of its many important jobs. The cervix wears other hats as well. One of those hats is helping sperm on their way to the Great Valley. It also builds the plug that keeps the uterus closed during pregnancy, protecting babies from infection and from premature birth. And lastly, when a woman is not pregnant, the cervix remains closed (when not menstruating), protecting the woman from infections as well. That cervix is a multi-talented mofo, if I ever saw one.
13 The Cervix Changes Often
The cervix is constantly changing—and you thought you were fickle. In fact, every day the cervix could be a little bit different than the day before. It can lengthen, shorten, and open—depending on a woman’s monthly cycle. It also changes considerably throughout pregnancy, and we women don’t even realize what important work it’s doing. In the first stages of pregnancy, the cervix will close and form that mucous plug we talked about earlier. The cervix will remain closed throughout most of a woman's pregnancy, but in the last trimester, it will slowly begin to shorten, before finally starting to open when it's nearly time for labor to begin. During labor, the cervix will dilate to 10 cm to allow for the baby to be born. Remarkably, even with all that stretching, it has an ability to bounce back to its normal size and heal itself completely on its own.
12 It Plays A Big Role In Reproduction
When mom and dad make baby, they usually know the sperm must travel to an egg, fertilize it, at which point the egg will attach itself to the wall of the uterus and grow a baby. What most people don’t realize is that the cervix can actually assist the sperm in finding the bulls-eye. Hormones also play a role in the ever-changing environment in the cervix. When estrogen levels are high, usually when the woman is at her most fertile during her monthly cycle, the cervix creates a mucous that is thin and slippery, making it easier for the sperm to navigate further into the uterus. If a woman’s estrogen levels are low, or she is unlikely to become pregnant due to her cycle, the cervix creates a mucous that is thick, making it more difficult for the sperm to pass through to the uterus. The cervix is like an interfering friend, either helping or hindering the sperm, as it sees fit.
11 If The Cervix Is Incompetent, The Baby Could Be In Danger
Most women won't know there is something wrong with their cervix, until they are in the second trimester of pregnancy. It is at that time that baby's weight begins putting pressure on the cervix. The pressure will cause a weak or incompetent cervix to shorten, and thin, and this can cause preterm labor. If the cervix is not strong enough to hold the baby inside, that is a real danger for the life of your child. Some ways doctors deal with this potential risk is by placing the mother on bed rest (which is what they did with me for both of my pregnancies), or they can put a stitch (called a cerclage) into the tissue of the cervix, strengthening it, thereby keeping the baby inside longer. Both of these situations can be risky, but every woman is different, and every labor is different, so the decision must be the mother's to make. I was lucky. Both of my babies made it full term. Still terrifying, though.
10 It Plays A Big Role In The Birth Of The Baby
It is the dream of many women to have a vaginal birth, but the cervix plays a major role in that dream becoming reality. When you are in labor, all that pain and all those contractions, are all about the cervix. One might even say that labor is really the fault of the cervix, so perhaps you should yell at it, and not your husband, the next time you're in labor. Labor is the body's attempt by the uterus to open that funnel for baby's delivery, and the uterus is contracting in an effort to dilate and thin the cervix in preparation for birth. This is a natural process, which occurs in active labor only. This process won't work correctly if you use medications to induce labor, and the process can be slowed by epidurals and other pain medications. That's why many doctors so often advise women to wait as long as they can for active labor to occur, and not to be induced. They also advise not to take pain medications too soon, because it can slow down the process.
9 The Cervix Is Like A Bodyguard For The Uterus
The uterus has a pretty big job—nourishing and protecting your growing baby—so it doesn’t have the time or energy to worry about protecting itself. It needs someone else to watch its back, kind of like a bodyguard. That’s another job the cervix takes on. Preterm birth is one of the leading causes of neonatal death, and bacterial infections that ascend from the lower female reproductive tract are the most common ways infections make their way to the uterus, leading to possible preterm birth, and even possible death for the baby. The cervix limits bacteria from finding their way into the uterus by the production of mucus, cytokines, and anti-microbial peptides. Basically, it shields your uterus from the bad guys. If that shield-barrier between the outside world and the uterus is damaged, bacteria may enter the uterus, and can lead to preterm birth. This is another reason your doctor’s keep an eye on your cervix during pregnancy; to make sure it’s doing its job well.
8 The Cervix Is Aunt Flo’s Escape Hatch
Most of us have a vague understanding of our menstrual cycles, and that blood is leaving our uterus by route of our lady bits. What you might not realize is how much the cervix assists in that process. When it's time for your uterus to shed its lining, the cervix will become low and hard, and will open to allow the blood to flow out of your body, just like an escape hatch. Somehow, your cervix knows when it's time to close and lock the hatch door, to continue to protect your uterus from infection. Your uterus can get infections, even when you are not pregnant. So, that cervix is always guarding your uterus, even when there is no baby taking up residence in the womb. It really is an amazingly complex process, and all without our knowledge. Thanks cervix, for always serving and protecting us. It’s a thankless job, but someone’s got to do it!
7 The Cervix Is Susceptible To Cancer
Your cervix is one tough cookie, but sadly it's not invincible. The cervix is susceptible to cell changes, which can lead to cervical cancer. These cell changes have been found to be the result of an infection called HPV, and this is true in most cases of cervical cancer. The good news is: cervical cancer can be treated, as can precancerous cells, especially when caught early. There are many procedures that can be done to abnormal cells to prevent them from spreading, or developing into cancer. Some of these procedures include laser therapy and cryotherapy (freezing), which involves destroying the 'bad' cells so that new, healthy ones can take their place; LEEP, basically an electric wire cuts away the bad cells; biopsy—similar to LEEP; and various types of hysterectomies, which one will be dependent on your particular circumstances. What stage your abnormal cells are in will determine the procedure: precancerous, stage 0-4, and how far the cells have spread.
6 HPV Is Transmitted Through Contact, Not Fluid Exchange
HPV (human papilloma virus) is the virus that causes 80% of cervical cancer cases. This virus is not fully understood, but the powers that be say it’s spread from skin to skin contact, not through fluid exchange, as is the case with many other sexually transmitted diseases or blood born pathogens. Sexual intercourse doesn't even have to occur for someone to contract this virus. Genital to genital contact, hand to genital contact, or even the sharing of sex toys seems to be capable of passing the virus from one person to another. Males who have not been circumcised also seem more likely to keep, and pass on this disease to their partners. There are many risk factors making a woman more likely obtain the virus, but research shows that 80% of all women will contract this virus at least once in their lifetime. Those are some pretty depressing statistics, if you ask me. Good news is, the effects of the virus are treatable.
5 Pap Tests Are More Important Than You Think
Most cases of cervical cancer have been found in women who have not have a Pap smear for 3-5 years before the cancer was discovered. That means that almost all women who receive pap smears and treatment of any abnormal cells, will most likely not develop cancer. That's a pretty awesome thing in the world of cancer, which in most cases is unpredictable and unpreventable. With cervical cancer, women have such a great chance to prevent it, and treat it, not to mention it is considered a 'slow moving' cancer. That means there is a lot of hope to defeat these bad cells, long before they ever become a real threat to your life. That makes the Pap smear super important, as early detection is the absolute key to preventing abnormal cells from developing into cancer, and/or spreading to other parts of your body. It's your life. Not your doctor's, or anyone else's. Be proactive and save yourself by getting yourself tested for HPV and Abnormal cervical changes.
4 HPV Can Lay Dormant For Years
HPV is a really strange virus. In fact, both males and females have it, but there may not be any symptoms of it for years. Most people's bodies are really good at fighting off infections, so it's possible for your immune system to fight HPV for a very long time, before it ever rears its ugly head. It's even possible for HPV to not ever cause lasting harm to its carrier. This is especially true for men. HPV isn't even considered a concern for them, even though they can pass it on to their partners. Still, even after such a long, dormant state, the virus can still come out to play at a later time. If you have HPV, you should always continue to get yourself checked for any abnormal cervical cells that could lead to cancer. You never know when your body's defenses let the infection slip through the cracks. Some people's bodies fight it better than others. You can't know how well your body will withstand the virus.
3 There Are Many Treatments For Cervical Cancer
Now that I've thoroughly freaked you out, remember that I mentioned there are many treatments to help rid yourself of abnormal cells, thus preventing cervical cancer. There are even treatments for the different stages of cervical cancer, if your cells have already progressed to that state. The first treatment of abnormal cells is laser and cyrotherapy. Both of these treatments involve destroying the bad cells on the surface of the cervix, with the hopes that healthy new cells will take their place. The second stage of treatment includes LEEPs and Biopsies. LEEP stands for: loop electrosurgical excision procedure, and is the cutting away of bad cells using an electric current. Biopsies are also a cutting out of the bad cells. You can have these procedures done more than once, depending on the recurrence of abnormal cells. And finally, hysterectomies can prevent the spread of cancer and bad cells by removing the organs entirely. There are partial hysterectomies, and radical hysterectomies (the removal of the uterus, cervix, and part of the vagina. In some cases the ovaries and fallopian tubes will also be removed).
2 The Cervix Hates Cigarettes
I mentioned earlier that there are some ways that a woman can become more susceptible to precancerous cervical changes and cervical cancer. The HPV virus that causes most cervical cancer is an infection that your immune system attempts to fight with all its might. When you engage in certain risky behaviors, you can lower your immune system, thus lowering your body's ability to fight infections. What this means is the HPV will have a much higher change of attacking the healthy cells on your cervix, resulting in precancerous legions and possibly leading to cancer. Smoking increased these risks, because it greatly lowers your immune system. Smoking has been widely known to speed up certain cancers, and if you know you have HPV or precancerous cells, you should try to quit smoking. Your cervix needs you to fight for it, so it can continue to fight to protect your uterus. We want to keep our reproductive organs for as long as we can!
1 The Cervix Is Susceptible To Other Diseases
As if HPV and cervical cancer isn’t enough for your cervix to worry about, it’s also got to worry about other diseases. Your cervix is busy protecting your uterus from infection, but sometimes it can develop infections of its very own. There are several different types of infections the cervix can contract; most of these are from sexually transmitted diseases. When the cervix develops an infection, it is known as cervicitis—and no, I’m not making that up. There are also abnormal growths that can form on the cervix known as polyps and cysts. These growths can sometimes cause pain and bleeding, even between periods. Endometriosis can also occur in the cervix. This is when the tissue that makes up the inside of your womb, grows outside of the womb. It can cause bleeding and discomfort, but usually isn’t serious. There you have it folks! Hopefully these facts will help you better understand your cervix, and help you care for your reproductive system.