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The Systems of the Body
The Reproductive System
Back to the Basics - Our Body

by Margueritte Gilkey, MD
September 2010

The purpose of the reproductive system is to create human beings. Both men and women have reproductive systems, and as we all know, both play a role in the reproductive process.

The Female Reproductive System
A group of organs, primarily inside the body around the pelvic region, make up the female reproductive system and contribute to the process of creating a baby. There are three main parts of the system:

  • VAGINA — receives sperm
  • UTERUS — where the fetus develops
  • OVARIES — produce ova (eggs)

The labia, clitoris and urethra make up the vulva, which is outside the body. Inside the body, these parts are connected to the vagina. The cervix connects the vagina and the uterus. The uterus and ovaries are connected via the fallopian tubes.

During a woman’s monthly cycle (usually between 21 and 28 days), an ovum leaves the ovaries and passes through the fallopian tube into the uterus. If the ovum is fertilized by sperm during ovulation, it begins to develop in the uterus. Ovulation occurs approximately halfway through a woman’s cycle. It is the time when a mature egg leaves the ovaries through the fallopian tubes and is available for fertilization in the uterus. Unfertilized eggs as well as the lining of the uterus are shed at the end of each cycle through menstruation.

Women spend approximately a third of their lives in menopause, which is the stage of life when menstruation stops. Each woman is born with a certain number of ova or eggs. They are stored in the ovaries where the hormones estrogen and progesterone are also produced. These hormones regulate menstruation and ovulation. Menopause occurs when the ovaries no longer produce an egg every month and menstruation stops.

The Male Reproductive System
The male reproductive system is also made up of a group of organs, which are primarily located outside the body in the pelvic area. The main function of the male reproductive system is to provide sperm to fertilize the woman’s egg. Sperm is produced in the testes that are protected inside the scrotum. The sperm then travels to the epdidymis where it continues to develop and is stored until it is ejaculated through the penis.

Reproductive System Problems
Fibroids — Uterine fibroids are non-cancerous growths that often appear during a woman’s childbearing years. They are very common, but many women do not know they have them because they have no symptoms. Other women experience difficult symptoms such as heavy menstrual periods. Medical and surgical procedures are available that can shrink or remove the fibroids.

Ectopic Pregnancy — When a fertilized egg essentially gets stuck in the fallopian tube and begins to grow there instead of in the uterus. Severe abdominal pain is a typical symptom. Surgery may be necessary.

Endometriosis — When uterine tissue begins to grow outside the uterus in the ovaries or other parts of the pelvic cavity. It can cause abnormal bleeding and pain. The disease should be managed by a gynecologist.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases — Both men and women can contract these diseases through sexual intercourse. Some include pelvic inflammatory disease, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDs), herpes and syphilis. Some can result in death while others are treatable. All require a visit to the physician for treatment and to prevent their spread.

Erectile Dysfunction — This is the inability to develop or maintain an erection of the penis. Many treatments are available.

Cancers of the Reproductive System — Both men and women can experience different types of cancers in their reproductive systems. That is one of the reasons why regular exams by a physician are important throughout the entire life cycle.

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Margueritte Gilkey, MD is a gynecologist with WakeMed Faculty Physicians-Ob/Gyn.

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