Chances are, unless you’re pregnant or trying to conceive, you might not have spent much time thinking about your cervix (other than at your annual gynecologist appointment where you may have a pap smear done to assess for cancerous or precancerous changes of the cervical cells). This part of our anatomy is hardworking, but often underappreciated. So, in light of January being Cervical Health Awareness Month, we thought we would give you a rundown on everything you need to know about your cervix.
Anatomy and Function
To start, a quick refresher: the cervix is located between the uterus and the vagina. Although it is contiguous with the rest of the uterus, it is considered its own structure. The cervix serves several functions in the body. First, it is responsible for the production of cervical mucus. During most of the month, cervical mucus is thick and sticky, preventing sperm and bacteria from entering the uterus. During ovulation, cervical mucus becomes copious, clear, and stretchy, strongly resembling egg whites. Egg white cervical mucus is important for fertility, as it facilitates the passage of sperm to the uterus. The other primary functions of the cervix pertain to pregnancy. During pregnancy, the cervix closes and forms a mucus plug to keep the fetus in and protect it from infection. During labor, the cervix dilates and the mucus plug falls out, allowing the fetus to move from the uterus into the vagina.
Cervical Health Issues
Some of the most common cervical health issues include cervical cancer, cervicitis, and cervical polyps.
Cervical cancer is the fourth most common female cancer. In its early stages, there are generally no symptoms: an abnormal pap smear is usually the first sign. Because of this, it is generally recommended that women between the ages of 21 and 65 have a pap smear every 3 years. More advanced cancers can be associated with bleeding after intercourse or between periods, pelvic pain, painful sex, and excess discharge.
Cervicitis, or inflammation of the cervix, is most commonly associated with sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, although it can also be caused by an allergic reaction. While cervicitis can be asymptomatic, it can also present with discharge, spotting, and burning pain with urination. If cervicitis is due to a bacterial infection, it will be treated with a course of antibiotics. For viral infections, antiviral medications may help to reduce the amount of time that you experience symptoms.
Cervical polyps are growths that form on the cervix. They are usually benign (not cancerous), although polyps should be removed and biopsied to be sure. Once a polyp is removed for biopsy, it does not usually recur.
Caring For Your Cervix
Cervical cancer is highly associated with certain strains of human papilloma virus (HPV), so safe sex practices are key for reducing risk of developing cervical dysplasia (precancerous changes of cervical cells) or cancer. Because of the strong association between HPV and cervical cancer, getting the HPV vaccine greatly reduces the risk of developing cervical cancer. For those undergoing treatment for cervical cancer, acupuncture can be used to address issues like pain, nausea, fatigue, and is also useful for helping the body to recover after surgical procedures.
If you are a smoker, quitting can help reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer. Acupuncture can be very helpful with stopping smoking: if you are having trouble quitting, reach out to an acupuncturist in your area for support.
Some studies have shown that high levels of perceived stress may be associated with progression of disease in women with cervical dysplasia caused by HPV. It is hypothesized that high stress levels impair the body’s immune response to HPV, slowing or preventing the resolution of HPV infection. Acupuncture can be very helpful at reducing perceived stress by helping to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. If you are having difficulty managing stress after being diagnosed with cervical dysplasia, acupuncture can be a great tool to help you find calm and allow your body to heal.
Cervical Issues in Pregnancy
During pregnancy, cervical insufficiency (sometimes referred to as an “incompetent cervix”) can be a major cause for concern. Cervical insufficiency is when the tissue of the cervix is weak and unable to stay closed during pregnancy. This can lead to pregnancy loss or premature birth. Women with an insufficient cervix may experience symptoms such as spotting, pelvic pressure, backache, and mild cramping.
While many women with cervical insufficiency do not have a known risk factor, a history of trauma to the cervix, such as dilation and curettage, treatment for an abnormal pap smear, or tearing of the cervix during a previous delivery, can be associated with the development of this condition.
Treatment for cervical insufficiency may include progesterone supplementation, regular monitoring, and a procedure called cervical cerclage, where stitches are placed in the cervix to help keep it closed. In traditional Chinese medicine theory, cervical insufficiency is seen as an inability of the body’s qi and yang energy to lift, hold, and support pregnancy. Acupuncture can be helpful with supporting the body’s energy through pregnancy and alleviating symptoms such as heaviness and pressure.