Pregnancy comes with a lot of excitement, anticipation, and a whole new lexicon of terms you never heard before you saw that positive sign on a pregnancy test. Dilation, Braxton-Hicks, colostrum, and a shortening cervix suddenly become words you say over coffee with friends, even if you don't know what any of them mean. That last term is especially confusing. You've probably heard it in regards to giving birth, but can you feel your cervix shortening?
First of all, what’s the deal with a shortened cervix anyway? The cervix — the opening to the uterus that sits at the top of the birth canal — naturally opens, shortens, and gets thinner and softer, so your baby can pass through the birth canal during labor and birth, according to the March of Dimes. It’s a necessary part of a healthy pregnancy, but if the cervix opens too early or is shorter than normal, then it can cause problems during pregnancy, including premature birth and miscarriage.
“Unfortunately, most of the time you cannot feel your cervix shortening,” Dr. Jaime Knopman and Dr. Sheeva Talebian, co-founders of TrulyMD and OB-GYNs at New York's Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine, tell Romper in an email interview. “It is a spontaneous event that occurs for reasons we don't really yet understand. Most women have no idea that their cervix is shortening and it is only discovered incidentally or because of other symptoms.”
Dr. Sunny Jun, co-medical director at San Francisco’s Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine, agrees, adding that although you cannot really ‘feel’ your cervix shortening, there may be signs and symptoms associated with it. “Women may notice increased pressure, vaginal spotting or discharge, lower back pain, and/or mild cramping,” she says.
If an ultrasound shows your cervix is shorter than 25 millimeters, you're less than 24 weeks pregnant, and you have other risk factors for cervical insufficiency, your practitioner may recommend a cerclage to reduce your chances of preterm delivery, according to Baby Center. A cerclage is a procedure in which a band thread is stitched around your cervix to reinforce it and help hold it closed. According to Healthline, an elective cerclage is considered safe and most often successful when it is performed early in pregnancy.
“The length of the cervix is best evaluated by an ultrasound. In women who have risks factors for shortening of the cervix — such as cervical trauma from labor or delivery, cervical procedures for abnormal pap smears, or congenital abnormalities — close monitoring with ultrasounds and pelvic exams will help in early detection and intervention if needed,” Jun says.
Which brings me to another phrase you will hear uttered more times than you can count during pregnancy: If you suspect something is off, then consult your healthcare provider. As my doctor told me, "there absolutely are no stupid questions when it comes to growing a tiny human."