For people with ovaries and uteruses, the fallopian tubes might seem like another accessory in the bouquet of reproductive organs that make up a human's anatomy. But fallopian tubes are way more than just tunnels for eggs to pass through and get fertilized; they're an important component of the reproductive system and can play a big role in a person's health.
That said, most of us know fallopian tubes as simply the slender tubes that allow eggs to travel from each of the ovaries to the uterus, says Roshini Raj, MD, board-certified internist, associate professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine, and women's health expert. "Most of the time the fertilization of the egg by the sperm occurs in a fallopian tube," she says.
So, what's so special about the fallopian tubes? "They are delicate," Dr. Raj says. If someone has pelvic inflammatory disease, a sexually transmitted infection, or endometriosis, the fallopian tubes can be affected or damaged, she says. With endometriosis, for example, the tissue lining the uterus grows in places outside the uterus, which can block the fallopian tubes, she says. Additionally, endometriosis causes inflammation that makes it difficult for eggs to move through the fallopian tubes. If pelvic inflammatory disease spreads to the fallopian tubes, in can also cause them to be inflamed or develop infected abscesses.
These issues matter, because over time scarring can lead to a blocked fallopian tube, Dr. Raj says. A blocked fallopian tube means that one or more of the tubes is blocked by scarring, or one tube narrows due to scarring. "If something narrows or blocks the fallopian tube, eggs are not able to move through and be fertilized by sperm," she says. In fact, blocked fallopian tubes are one of the most common causes of infertility, affecting up to 40% of all cases.
The tricky thing about blocked fallopian tubes is that "often the only sign of blocked fallopian tubes is difficulty conceiving," Dr. Raj says. Sometimes people will experience pelvic pain, or in rare cases have an ectopic pregnancy, which indicates that there's something wrong with the fallopian tubes. But most people won't realize that they have blocked fallopian tubes until they see a doctor for infertility. Knowing sooner could help you make informed decisions about your health, and prevent complications like ectopic pregnancies. Luckily, scarring and blockages can be treated surgically, and in-vitro fertilization is sometimes an option for people hoping to get pregnant, she says.
All of these facts might seem a little scary. Whether or not you have plans to have children, if you're concerned about what's up with your own fallopian tubes, then it's a good idea to talk to your Ob/Gyn or healthcare provider. They can let you know if other health conditions you have will impact your tubes — and hopefully quell any fallopian fears you have along the way.