The uterine artery is a major blood vessel that supplies oxygen and blood-based nutrients to the female reproductive organs. Humans and most vertebrates have it, and it plays a very important role in reproduction and healthy pregnancy. Problems with uterine blood flow can lead to a number of reproductive problems when it comes to conception initially, and can also be harmful to either the mother or the developing child as a pregnancy progresses. Modern medical experts are usually trained to monitor the strength and position of this artery, both as a normal point of health for women and as a special precaution during gestation and childbirth. Complications and problems can often be treated early if caught, but a lot of this depends on the specific situation at hand.
Understanding Arteries Generally
The human cardiovascular system is made up of a number of different arteries where blood pumps out of the heart and to various other places in the body. The heart is the central processing station for blood and it is arguably the most important part of the circulatory system, but at the same time it can’t do everything on its own. Blood in the heart is oxygenated by the lungs and then pushed through the aorta. From here it travels through the arterial system to various points in the body, then ultimately back to the heart to start the process anew.
Some arteries branch off from the aorta and head upward to nourish the brain and the muscles of arms. The bulk of pumped blood descends to the torso until finally splitting into two common iliac arteries, which again split into an external and internal iliac artery. The latter, sometimes referred as the hypogastric artery, branches to form the various arteries of the abdomen. The uterine artery is one of these.
The artery's primary purpose is to deliver blood to the uterus. It shares vessels and blood flow with the vaginal and cervical arteries, and converges with the ovarian artery. If any of these arteries malfunction, interconnected collateral blood vessels from the other arteries prevent an organ from shutting down completely.
Monitoring Blood Flow in Pregnancy
There are a lot of factors that contribute to overall uterine health, but proper blood flow and circulation is often high on the list. A healthy uterus helps ensure healthy babies, and the artery typically enlarges during pregnancy to supply the increased demand. Doctors and others who care for pregnant women often spend a lot of time focusing on the strength of this artery as a way to watch for and ideally prevent complications or problems.
One of the easiest ways to monitor arterial health is with an ultrasonic Doppler waveform. This sort of ultrasound scan captures and charts diastolic pressure in the artery, and is usually performed around the second trimester. It is basically a recording of the pulsation of blood flow. If the waveform displays a “hiccup,” one or both of the uterine arteries is said to be notched.
Arterial notching is relatively rare, and is usually estimated to occur in just 5% of pregnancies. It indicative of restricted blood flow to the uterus and is potentially serious, which makes prompt treatment really important. It contributes to maternal hypertension and can affect fetal growth and birth weight. In addition, it increases the risk for a condition called preeclampsia, which is characterized by a sudden rise in blood pressure that can lead to prenatal or neo-natal excess bleeding, coma, and even death. When notches are suspected, low-dose aspirin is usually prescribed and the condition is monitored.
Cysts and Other Problems
A common concern involving this artery is an abnormal cystic growth called a uterine leiomyoma. Up to 30% of women develop a leiomyoma at some point in their adult lives. They are usually benign and of little consequence, with most women experiencing no adverse symptoms and no reproductive complications. A gynecologist or other medical specialist can usually recommend various treatments, including uterine artery embolization (UAE) to remove or shrink them.
Other arterial problems can be more serious. An arteriovenous malformation, for instance, can cause leaking or bleeding into the uterus and can cause serious complications. Fistulas, which are tissue tears or microscopic holes, are often caused by deformity in the structure of the blood vessel. These can normally be diagnosed and surgically repaired, but depending on the extent of the damage a hysterectomy — the surgical removal of the uterus as a whole — may be required.