The Uterus and Cervix
The uterus is the muscular organ that nourishes and supports the growing embryo (see Figure). Its average size is approximately 5 cm wide by 7 cm long (approximately 2 in by 3 in) when a female is not pregnant. It has three sections. The portion of the uterus superior to the opening of the uterine tubes is called the fundus. The middle section of the uterus is called the body of uterus (or corpus). The cervix is the narrow inferior portion of the uterus that projects into the vagina. The cervix produces mucus secretions that become thin and stringy under the influence of high systemic plasma estrogen concentrations, and these secretions can facilitate sperm movement through the reproductive tract.
Several ligaments maintain the position of the uterus within the abdominopelvic cavity. The broad ligament is a fold of peritoneum that serves as a primary support for the uterus, extending laterally from both sides of the uterus and attaching it to the pelvic wall. The round ligament attaches to the uterus near the uterine tubes, and extends to the labia majora. Finally, the uterosacral ligament stabilizes the uterus posteriorly by its connection from the cervix to the pelvic wall.
The wall of the uterus is made up of three layers. The most superficial layer is the serous membrane, or perimetrium, which consists of epithelial tissue that covers the exterior portion of the uterus. The middle layer, or myometrium, is a thick layer of smooth muscle responsible for uterine contractions. Most of the uterus is myometrial tissue, and the muscle fibers run horizontally, vertically, and diagonally, allowing the powerful contractions that occur during labor and the less powerful contractions (or cramps) that help to expel menstrual blood during a woman’s period. Anteriorly directed myometrial contractions also occur near the time of ovulation, and are thought to possibly facilitate the transport of sperm through the female reproductive tract.
The innermost layer of the uterus is called the endometrium. The endometrium contains a connective tissue lining, the lamina propria, which is covered by epithelial tissue that lines the lumen. Structurally, the endometrium consists of two layers: the stratum basalis and the stratum functionalis (the basal and functional layers). The stratum basalis layer is part of the lamina propria and is adjacent to the myometrium; this layer does not shed during menses. In contrast, the thicker stratum functionalis layer contains the glandular portion of the lamina propria and the endothelial tissue that lines the uterine lumen. It is the stratum functionalis that grows and thickens in response to increased levels of estrogen and progesterone. In the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, special branches off of the uterine artery called spiral arteries supply the thickened stratum functionalis. This inner functional layer provides the proper site of implantation for the fertilized egg, and—should
ertilization not occur—it is only the stratum functionalis layer of the endometrium that sheds during menstruation.
Recall that during the follicular phase of the ovarian cycle, the tertiary follicles are growing and secreting estrogen. At the same time, the stratum functionalis of the endometrium is thickening to prepare for a potential implantation. The post-ovulatory increase in progesterone, which characterizes the luteal phase, is key for maintaining a thick stratum functionalis. As long as a functional corpus luteum is present in the ovary, the endometrial lining is prepared for implantation. Indeed, if an embryo implants, signals are sent to the corpus luteum to continue secreting progesterone to maintain the endometrium, and thus maintain the pregnancy. If an embryo does not implant, no signal is sent to the corpus luteum and it degrades, ceasing progesterone production and ending the luteal phase. Without progesterone, the endometrium thins and, under the influence of prostaglandins, the spiral arteries of the endometrium constrict and rupture, preventing oxygenated blood from reaching the endometrial tissue. As a result, endometrial tissue dies and blood, pieces of the endometrial tissue, and white blood cells are shed through the vagina during menstruation, or the menses. The first menses after puberty, called menarche, can occur either before or after the first ovulation.