Do you remember getting taught about female anatomy at school? What did it consist of for you? When I was about 9 or 10 I remember all the girls being taken into another room for a slide presentation (I’m showing my age!) about periods, and being given a little information booklet (which I now wish I could find, it would be fascinating). Then when I was about 12 we had the biology/reproduction section of science, which I think I was so mortified about I blocked most of it from my memory.
After my hysterectomy in 2015 I’ve stayed in several fibroid groups to offer advice to other women going through the same thing and I’ve been surprised at how many women don’t know how their bodies work. I think education in this area is really hit and miss and very dependent on everything from the country you’re raised in to the teacher you have. The unfortunate side-effect of this is, when something like fibroids turn up and surgeries are being discussed, it can be hard to know what’s best when you’re not sure what’s normal, and what different parts of your body are for. (It also doesn’t help when some websites spread untruths).
So in this article I’m going to try and give an overview of basic female anatomy and how it works. I’m going to assume you know nothing 🙂 There will be pictures, but I won’t use any photographs because I know some people don’t like the gruesome side of things. (Please note, none of the following pictures are mine!)
What are your reproductive organs?
The female reproductive system consists of the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes (labelled ‘oviduct’ below) and vagina. The main components are the ovaries – where the eggs are stored and released from – and the uterus – the place where a baby grows. The fallopian tubes connect the ovaries to the uterus, and the vagina connects the uterus to the outside world!
This system sits very low down in the body – lower than you probably think. It’s next to the bladder, and a normal uterus is very small; around 8cm x 5cm. That’s smaller than your fist. An ovary is around 3-5cm x 1.5-3cm in size, which is pretty small considering how many eggs it has in there! (We’ll get to this in the next article – Anatomy 201)
Is the uterus attached to anything?
Now your uterus isn’t just sitting in there, it’s held in place by ligaments. There are three main types of ligament doing this job:
The broad ligament (holds both uterus and ovaries in place)
The uterine ligaments (they primarily hold the uterus in place)
The ovarian ligaments (they primarily hold the ovaries in place)
The broad ligament could be described as like a layer of fabric, covering the front and back of the uterus and ovaries, while the uterine and ovarian ligaments are more like elastic bands that fix different parts of the organs to your abdominal walls and other tissues.
Below are links to a couple of websites that go into a lot more detail about anatomy and specifically the ligaments that hold everything in place:
The diagram below is looking down through the pelvis, the uterus is in the centre and the greyish white areas are the attaching ligaments.
What is the cervix?
If it’s possible to have controversy in the world of female anatomy I would say that it belongs to the cervix. What is it, where is it, what does it do, should I keep it, and so on. I’ve written some articles on some of these topics which might be helpful, but for now let’s just stick to the basics. The cervix is part of the uterus, made of the same uterine tissue. It is located right at the base of the uterus, and it is like the doorway between your vagina and your uterus. Normally it’s essentially closed (there is always a small opening, for sperm to get in and your period to get out, but the opening can be as small as a pinhead), when you have a baby the cervix dilates or opens. The cervix can also be dilated for some medical procedures.
(image from https://healthy.kaiserpermanente.org/static/health-encyclopedia/en-us/kb/hw14/0091/hw140091.shtml)
So now we know what everything is, and where everything is, we need to understand what it all does and how it works! All of which is in the next article – Anatomy 201.