The appendix is a worm-shaped tube of tissue that extends from the large intestine. Removing it has no apparent negative consequences. Accordingly, it is generally ignored, unless it becomes infected.
An infection of the appendix—appendicitis—can occur at any age, but is most common between the ages of 10 and 20. It can result as an outgrowth of another infection caused by a virus or bacteria, or as a result of something blocking the entrance to the cavity that runs inside the appendix.
The danger from appendicitis is that the infected appendix will split open or burst, spreading infection to the peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal cavity). This results in
peritonitis—a potentially life-threatening condition if not treated immediately.
In some instances, an abscess may develop, surrounding the infected appendix and preventing infection from spreading. However, the presence of an abscess usually cannot be identified definitively until surgery is performed. Accordingly, once detected, most cases of appendicitis are treated by surgery to remove the appendix.
The first signs of appendicitis often mimic the symptoms of a gastrointestinal virus, including:
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Pain in parts of the abdomen
- Inability to pass gas
However, the telltale sign of appendicitis is usually increasing tenderness and pain in the area known as the
McBurney point—a point approximately half-way on a line between the protrusion of your hipbone and your navel. The pain worsens when moving, taking deep breathes, coughing, sneezing or touching the area.
Unfortunately, diagnosing appendicitis can be very difficult because some or all of the symptoms are often missing. Even when all the symptoms are present, they are often misdiagnosed. Diagnosis can be especially difficult in the elderly and in young children, since they generally have only one or two symptoms and may not be able to articulate their pain. Appendicitis is also hard to diagnose in pregnant women, whose appendix—and thus, any pain from appendicitis—moves higher towards their rib cage as pregnancy progresses.
In diagnosing appendicitis, it important to get a careful history of the patient's symptoms and then conduct a thorough physical examination. When appendicitis is suspected, a number of tests are ordered—x-rays, white blood cell counts, urinalysis to eliminate a urinary tract infection, and in some cases, a
ultrasound—to pinpoint the diagnosis before prescribing treatment.
Once diagnosed, an
appendectomy may be done. This is a surgery to remove the appendix. Like many other types of surgery, the generally preferred surgical method is the laparoscopic method. Small incisions are made in the abdomen, through which very small video and surgical equipment is passed. The surgeon then removes the appendix with the surgical tools, using the video monitor as a guide.
Laparoscopic appendectomies are generally preferred because they are less invasive and require smaller incisions. This results in shorter hospital stays, quicker recovery, and less postoperative pain than with traditional open surgery.
In some instances, open method appendectomies are still the chosen method, especially if the appendix has ruptured and spread infection to the abdomen. Here, the larger incision of the open surgical method is necessary to make sure that the abdomen is properly cleaned of infection. In addition, open method appendectomies are preferred when an abscess has been detected or is suspected. Antibiotics are usually administered during the surgery.
Sometimes appendicitis does not need to be treated with surgery and you will just be given antibiotics.
If you suspect that you or your child may have appendicitis, you should take the following steps:
- Seek out a medical examination immediately.
- Do not use an enema or any laxative medication.
- Since emergency surgery may be required, do not eat or drink anything until the examination is conducted.
- Do not take pain medication prior to the examination because it can mask symptoms, making diagnosis more difficult.
Depending on whether or not rupture has occurred, what surgical method is used, and the age and condition of the patient, recuperation from an appendectomy will take anywhere from a few days to more than a week. During this period, rest will initially be prescribed, followed by a gradual resumption of normal activities. In some instances, you may be put on a liquid diet with immediate progression to a soft diet. Generally, patients return to their regular diet within a couple of days of surgery. Pain medication will be prescribed following surgery, as well as antibiotics if the appendix has ruptured. In virtually all cases, however, when treated immediately and properly, you can expect a full recovery with no major complications.