Gynecology or gynaecology is the medical practice dealing with the health of the female reproductive systems (vagina, uterus and ovaries) and the breasts. Literally, outside medicine, it means "the science of women". Its counterpart is andrology, which deals with medical issues specific to the male reproductive system.
Almost all modern gynaecologists are also obstetricians (see obstetrics and gynaecology). In many areas, the specialities of gynaecology and obstetrics overlap.
The word "gynaecology" comes from the Greek γυνή gyne. "woman" and -logia, "study."
The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus is the oldest known medical text of any kind. Dated to about 1800 B.C., it deals with women's complaints—gynaecological diseases, fertility, pregnancy, contraception, etc. The text is divided into thirty-four sections, each section dealing with a specific problem and containing diagnosis and treatment; no prognosis is suggested. Treatments are non surgical, comprising applying medicines to the affected body part or swallowing them. The womb is at times seen as the source of complaints manifesting themselves in other body parts.
The Hippocratic Corpus contains several gynaecological treatises dating to the 5th/4th centuries BC. The gynaecological treatise Gynaikeia by Soranus of Ephesus (1st/2nd century AD) is extant (together with a 6th-century Latin paraphrase by Muscio, a physician of the same school). He was the chief representative of the school of physicians known as the "Methodists".
J. Marion Sims is widely considered the father of modern gynaecology. Now criticized for the short comings. He developed some of his techniques by operating on slaves, many of whom were not given anesthesia.
In some countries, women must first see a general practitioner (GP; also known as a family practitioner (FP)) prior to seeing a gynaecologist. If their condition requires training, knowledge, surgical procedure, or equipment unavailable to the GP, the patient is then referred to a gynaecologist. In the United States, however, law and many health insurance plans allow gynaecologists to provide primary care in addition to aspects of their own specialty. With this option available, some women opt to see a gynaecological surgeon for non-gynaecological problems without another physician's referral.
As in all of medicine, the main tools of diagnosis are clinical history and examination. Gynaecological examination is quite intimate, more so than a routine physical exam. It also requires unique instrumentation such as the speculum. The speculum consists of two hinged blades of concave metal or plastic which are used to retract the tissues of the vagina and permit examination of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus located within the upper portion of the vagina. Gynaecologists typically do a bimanual examination (one hand on the abdomen and one or two fingers in the vagina) to palpate the cervix, uterus, ovaries and bony pelvis. It is not uncommon to do a rectovaginal examination for complete evaluation of the pelvis, particularly if any suspicious masses are appreciated. Male gynaecologists may have a female chaperone for their examination. An abdominal and/or vaginal ultrasound can be used to confirm any abnormalities appreciated with the bimanual examination or when indicated by the patient's history.
Examples of conditions dealt with by a gynaecologist are:
- Cancer and pre-cancerous diseases of the reproductive organs including ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, vagina, and vulva
- Incontinence of urine
- Amenorrhoea (absent menstrual periods)
- Dysmenorrhoea (painful menstrual periods)
- Menorrhagia (heavy menstrual periods); a common indication for hysterectomy
- Prolapse of pelvic organs
- Infections of the vagina (vaginitis), cervix and uterus (including fungal, bacterial, viral, and protozoal)
- Other vaginal diseases
There is some crossover in these areas. For example, a woman with urinary incontinence may be referred to a urologist.
As with all surgical specialties, gynaecologists may employ medical or surgical therapies (or many times, both), depending on the exact nature of the problem that they are treating. Pre- and post-operative medical management will often employ many standard drug therapies, such as antibiotics, diuretics, antihypertensives, and antiemetics. Additionally, gynaecologists make frequent use of specialized hormone-modulating therapies (such as Clomifene citrate and hormonal contraception) to treat disorders of the female genital tract that are responsive to pituitary and/or gonadal signals.
Surgery, however, is the mainstay of gynaecological therapy. For historical and political reasons, gynaecologists were previously not considered "surgeons", although this point has always been the source of some controversy. Modern advancements in both general surgery and gynaecology, however, have blurred many of the once rigid lines of distinction. The rise of sub-specialties within gynaecology which are primarily surgical in nature (for example urogynaecology and gynaecological oncology) have strengthened the reputations of gynaecologists as surgical practitioners, and many surgeons and surgical societies have come to view gynaecologists as comrades of sorts. As proof of this changing attitude, gynaecologists are now eligible for fellowship in both the American College of Surgeons and Royal Colleges of Surgeons, and many newer surgical textbooks include chapters on (at least basic) gynaecological surgery.
Some of the more common operations that gynaecologists perform include:
- Dilation and curettage (removal of the uterine contents for various reasons, including completing a partial miscarriage and diagnostic sampling for dysfunctional uterine bleeding refractive to medical therapy)
- Hysterectomy (removal of the uterus)
- Oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries)
- Tubal ligation (a type of permanent sterilization)
- Hysteroscopy (inspection of the uterine cavity)
- Diagnostic laparoscopy – used to diagnose and treat sources of pelvic and abdominal pain; perhaps most famously used to provide a definitive diagnosis of endometriosis.
- Exploratory laparotomy – may be used to investigate the level of progression of benign or malignant disease, or to assess and repair damage to the pelvic organs.
- Various surgical treatments for urinary incontinence, including cystoscopy and sub-urethral slings.
- Surgical treatment of pelvic organ prolapse, including correction of cystocele and rectocele.
- Appendectomy – often performed to remove site of painful endometriosis implantation and/or prophylactically (against future acute appendicitis) at the time of hysterectomy or Caesarean section. May also be performed as part of a staging operation for ovarian cancer.
- Cervical Excision Procedures (including cryosurgery) – removal of the surface of the cervix containing pre-cancerous cells which have been previously identified on Pap smear.