What Women Need to Know About the Cervix

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The female reproductive system, which is located in the pelvis, includes the uterus, fallopian tubes, cervix, and vagina. The cervix, which is in the lower, narrow part of the uterus, is a passageway that connects the uterus with the vagina. During a menstrual cycle, blood flows from the uterus through the cervix and into the vagina. The cervix is responsible for producing mucus. During sexual intercourse, the mucus helps sperm move from the vagina through the cervix and into the uterus.

  During pregnancy, the cervix is tightly closed keeping the fetus inside the uterus. During childbirth, the cervix loosens allowing the baby to pass through to the vagina.

Anatomy of the Cervix

The cervix is about two inches long but can vary in length and width over the course of a woman’s lifetime. It gets its blood supply from a branch of the uterine artery. The main structure of the cervix is composed of the following:

Endocervix – The inner part of the  cervix that forms a canal connecting the vagina to the uterus. A small sample of mucosal cells of the endocervix are examined, after a pelvic examination, for infection, inflammation, and abnormal cells that may become cancerous.

Internal Orifice, or OS–the opening into the uterus from the cervix.

External Orifice, or OS–the opening into the vagina from the cervix.

Ectocervix–the lower part of the cervix that bulges into the top of the vagina.

Conditions That Affect the Cervix

When the body needs them, cells in the cervix grow and divide to form new cells. As cells age or get damaged new cells are formed to replace them. At times new cells may form when the body does not need them or old or damaged cells don't die when they should. The excess amount of cells forms into a collection of tissue known as a growth or tumor.

  Growths can be either cancerous or non-cancerous.

Non-cancerous Growths

Non-cancerous or benign growths are not harmful and do not invade tissue that surrounds them. Types of benign or non-cancerous growths include:

  • Genital warts
  • Polyps
  • Cysts
  • Infection or Inflammation
  • Neoplasia or dysplasia

Cancerous Growths

Cancerous or malignant growths begin in the cells on the surface of the cervix. Over the course of time they invade surrounding tissue and organs. They travel through the body’s lymphatic system and spread to other organs. It has been found that the cause of most cervical cancer is due to an infection with the human papilloma virus, or HPV. Patients with HPV who smoke increase their risk of developing cervical cancer.

Symptoms of Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer may not show symptoms in its early stages. As the cancer grows, some women may experience abnormal bleeding that occurs between their regular menstrual cycles. They may experience bleeding after sexual intercourse, or a pelvic examination.

Menstrual cycles may be longer and heavier than normal. The may also experience bleeding after menopause.  Other symptoms, such as an increased vaginal discharge, pelvic pain or painful sexual intercourse may indicate an infection or other health problems.  If you experience any of these symptoms you should notify your doctor so you can be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.

Caring for Your Cervix

The best way to care for your cervix and reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer is by having a cervical screening examination on a regular basis. If abnormal cervical cells are found in the early stages, cervical cancer can be prevented by removing or destroying the abnormal cells before they become cancerous.

Another way to care for your cervix is by preventing the development of HPV. Avoid or practice safe sex. Use condoms, practice abstinence and, if you qualify, get an HPV vaccination.

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