The cervix is a relatively lesser-known organ, but that does not mean it’s any less important in the functioning of the female reproductive system. In a recent survey, nearly 50% of the women interviewed did not know what the cervix is, or where it is located, and one in six failed to name a single function of the cervix. In light of this, it’s crucial for us to get into the nitty gritties of this organ, and find out what it does, and what the various risks to it can be.
The cervix is nothing but the area between your vagina and your uterus, sitting right above the former and right below the latter. It is often termed the ‘neck of the womb’, since that is what the word ‘cervix’ means in Latin. In the non-pregnant state, the cervix functions almost like a canal which lets the sperm pass through to the uterus for fertilisation (aided by mucus and some other internal fluids), but during pregnancy, the canal-like passage closes. The closure is made possible through the accumulation of the very same mucus that lubricates it (hardening to form something akin to a ‘plug’ to shut the passage), and it occurs so as to protect the unborn foetus from harmful external impurities. Towards the end of the pregnancy, the ‘plug’ begins to soften and is ultimately shed during labour.
It’s a thick and round, with a hole in the middle so that various hormones and fluids can easily circulate through it, and is very often compared to a donut. No joke!
During your menstrual cycle, the cervix opens to a small extent so as to allow blood to flow out from the uterus to the vagina, essentially serving one of the most important functions in the process of menstruation.
When the pregnancy reaches its very end, the cervix begins to soften or “ripen” due to the various hormonal changes in the body. This allows it to respond to the contractions of the uterus and open wide enough to eject the baby. When you first start going into labour, the baby’s head rests on the cervix, but with more uterine contractions, the cervix begins to dilate, shorten and become tender. By the end of the process, the cervix dilates up to 10 cm (or sometimes even more) to allow the baby’s head to move easily through to the vagina.
As mentioned earlier, it’s the cervix that makes sure that the sperm passes on to the uterus to get fertilised, so it’s needless to say that it plays a major part in controlling whether or not a woman actually conceives. Hormone levels often fluctuate in the female body due to various factors, and whenever there’s more oestrogen, it makes the mucus produced by the cervix much thinner. This, in turn, makes the sperm easier to pass through, leading to higher chances of pregnancy. But when progesterone levels are higher, the mucus becomes thicker, making it more difficult for the sperm to pass into the uterus.
After menopause, the ovaries gradually stop producing oestrogen and progesterone, leading to a lack of mucus production in the cervix. This is what leads to ‘vaginal dryness’, and affects not just fertility, but also leads to a lack of lubrication and the ‘good bacteria’ which keeps the organ healthy. Hormonal changes can also cause the cervix to shift from its original position and move upwards. A good way to somewhat prevent this is to be constantly hydrated and maintain a balanced diet, which might help restore the hormonal balance of the cervix.
The biggest threat that this organ can face, cervical cancer occurs due to the buildup of tumours or cysts in the cervix, and can spread to other parts of the body (the lungs, the liver, the bones) through blood vessels. Studies have more or less pinned down the cause of cervical cancer to the HPV virus, which in some cases can be relatively harmless, but in other cases can prove fatal. The virus can be contracted through various lifestyle anomalies like excessive smoking or drinking, or can be picked up from an unhygienic environment. Women in their mid-twenties to thirties should definitely conduct routine cervical cancer screening tests for an early detection, because it is curable through radiation therapy, surgery or medication, in the earlier stages. Another way cervical cancer can be prevented is to take the HPV vaccine before you start getting sexually active (any time between the ages of 9 to 20).
Despite so many women being relatively unaware of where the cervix is and what it does, there’s no denying how absolutely necessary it is to be conscious of this organ’s health and safety. Not only does it help in reproduction and menstruation, it helps maintain the hormonal balance of the body as a whole, and so, it’s good to keep yourself abreast of it.