Clinical Review

Anterior, apical, posterior: Vaginal anatomy for the gynecologic surgeon

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The SGS Pelvic Anatomy Group is working to establish standard pelvic anatomic terminology for surgeons, with the ultimate goal of improving clinician communication and enhancing patient care



CASE 1 Defining anatomic structures to assure surgical precision

A 44-year-old woman is scheduled for a vaginal hysterectomy and bilateral salpingectomy for abnormal uterine bleeding. In your academic practice, a resident routinely operates with you and is accompanied by a medical student. As this is your first case with each learner, you review the steps of the procedure along with pertinent anatomy. During this discussion, numerous anatomic terms are used to describe anterior cul-de-sac entry, including pubocervical fascia, vesicouterine fold, and vesicovaginal space. Which of these terms, if any, are correct? Is there a preferred term that should be used to teach future learners so we can all “speak” the same language?

What’s in a name?

ObGyns must thoroughly understand pelvic anatomy, since much of our patient care relates to structures in that region. We also must understand the terminology that most appropriately describes each pelvic structure so that we can communicate effectively with colleagues and other providers. The case described above lists several terms that are commonly found in gynecologic textbooks and surgical atlases to describe dissection for vaginal hysterectomy. Lack of a standardized vocabulary, however, often confuses teachers and learners alike, and it highlights the importance of having a universal language to ensure the safe, effective performance of surgical procedures.1

At first glance, it may seem that anatomic terms are inherently descriptive of the structure they represent; for example, the terms uterus and vagina seem rather obvious. However, many anatomic terms convey ambiguity. Which muscles, for example, constitute the levator ani: pubococcygeus, pubovisceral, pubovisceralis, puboperinealis, puboanalis, pubovaginalis, puborectalis, puborectal, iliococcygeus, ischiococcygeus? Do any of these terms redundantly describe the same structure, or does each term refer to an independent structure?

Standard terminology is essential

Anatomists long have recognized the need for standardized terminology to facilitate clear communication. To provide historical background, the term anatomy is derived from the Greek word for “dissection” or “to cut open.”2 Records on the scientific study of human anatomy date back thousands of years.

A brief review of current standardized terminology can be traced back to 1895, with the publication of Basle Terminologia Anatomica.3 That work was intended to provide a consolidated reference with clear direction regarding which anatomic terms should be used. It was updated several times during the ensuing century and was later published as Nomina Anatomica.

In 1990, an international committee was formed with representatives from many anatomical organizations, again with the intention of providing standardized anatomic terminology. Those efforts resulted in the publication of Terminologia Anatomica: International Anatomical Terminology, commonly referred to as TA, in 1998. TA continues to be the referent standard for human anatomic terminology; it was most recently updated in 2011.4

CASE 2 Conveying details of mesh erosion

A 52-year-old woman presents to the general gynecology clinic with a 10-year history of pelvic pain and dyspareunia after undergoing vaginal mesh surgery for prolapse and urinary incontinence. On examination, there is a visible ridge of mesh extending from the left side of the midurethra along the anterior and lateral vagina for a length of 1.5 cm. There also is a palpable tight band on the right vaginal wall near the ischial spine that reproduces her pain and causes spasm of the levator ani. You believe the patient needs a urogynecology referral for complications of vaginal mesh. How do you best describe your findings to your urogynecology colleague?

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