The Purpose of the Cervix

Learn More About the Cervix's Role in Female Reproduction

woman holding out her waistband
Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain. Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Women typically talk about the cervix in relation to childbirth, or to having a Pap smear. However, many are unaware of what the cervix is and how it functions. Which is unfortunate, as the cervix plays an important role in the female reproduction system.

What You Need to Know About Your Cervix

The cervix is the lower portion of the uterus. It widens during childbirth to allow for the passage of the baby.

It also allows the passage of menstrual fluid from the uterus, and sperm needs to travel through the cervix in order to reach the uterus.

Despite the variety of objects passing through the cervix, it is only approximately two inches long, and is tubular in shape.

The cervix is vulnerable to several health conditions, such as chronic inflammation, polyps, dysplasia, and cancer. Unfortunately, cervical conditions rarely present symptoms in the early stages; therefore, a regular Pap smear is vital for optimum cervical health. A Pap smear can identify abnormal cervical changes long before they become cancerous.

Cervical cancer screening guidelines set forth by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) in November 2009 suggest:

  • Women should have their first Pap smear at age 21. The old guidelines recommended women have their first Pap three years after become sexually active, or at age 21... whichever came first.
  • Women in their 20s should have a Pap smear every two years, instead of annually.
  • Women in their 30s who have had three consecutive normal Pap smears should undergo screening every three years.
  • Women aged 65-70, who have had three consecutive normal Pap smear results and no abnormal findings in 10 years, can discontinue screenings altogether if they choose.
  • Women who have undergone a total hysterectomy due to a noncancerous condition and have not previously had abnormal Pap smears can also discontinue screenings.

Anatomy of the Cervix

Although the cervix is only about two inches long, several key components contribute to cervical function. These areas of the cervix are often discussed during pregnancy, Pap smears, and colposcopy exams. It is important to become familiar with them so you can understand possible changes occurring with your cervix. This knowledge will also help you understand tests, like the Pap smear or colposcopy.

  • Endocervical Canal: the potential space in the center of the tube of tissue that is the cervix. During a colposcopy, the doctor may take a sample of cells in the endocervical canal. This is called an endocervical curettage (ECC).
  • Ectocervix: lower part of the cervix that protrudes into the vagina.
  • Internal Os: part of the cervix closest to the main body of the uterus. During pregnancy and childbirth, you may hear the doctor speak about the "os."
  • External Os: the opening of the ectocervix.
  • Transformation Zone: also called the "TZ" for short. This is the area of the cervix where cervical dysplasia commonly occurs. The transformation zone is often discussed during a colposcopy exam.

    Again, having regular Pap smears is imperative to detect early changes to the cervical cells that may lead to cervical cancer; however, you should know that the majority of abnormal Pap smears are due to inflammation or infection.

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