Appendicitis is a sudden inflammation or swelling of the appendix. The appendix is a finger-like organ, a "dead-end sac" of sorts, attached to the first part of the large bowel, also known as the colon. The appendix is located in the lower right portion of the abdomen. Until recently, this organ was thought to be useless and its function remained a mystery. Scientists however, have found that the appendix plays a role in immune system function. It is involved, more specifically, in the production of antibodies. Since many other components throughout the body are also implicated in this task, the appendix is not vital to the body's proper functioning.
Appendicitis is rarely fatal these days, due to the use of antibiotics and surgery.
Persons most at risk
Appendicitis typically affects people between the ages of 10 and 30 years, and occurs more frequently in men.
Appendicitis commonly develops when the connection between the appendix and large intestine becomes obstructed. The obstruction may be caused, among other things, by hardened stool, food remnants or a growth in the intestine. A gastrointestinal infection or inflammation can also lead to appendicitis.
Appendicitis-related symptoms can vary from person to person and can also change over time. Pain is the main symptom. It starts around the navel, then descends towards the lower right portion of the abdomen, becoming increasingly more severe. Over the course of a day, the pain can become very severe. The location of the pain is not necessarily the same for everyone. It changes depending on the position of the appendix. Women who are pregnant, for example, may feel the pain elsewhere. In children, the pain is not as localized, while in the elderly, the pain may not be as severe. A classic symptom of appendicitis is increased pain when pressing, then releasing. In other words, pain becomes more intense when pressure is applied on the abdomen close to the appendix and quickly released.
In addition to pain, other common symptoms include:
- Constipation, diarrhea or gas
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of appetite
If not treated promptly, appendicitis can cause peritonitis, an infection of the membrane that lines the inside of the abdomen and the internal organs or an appendix abscess. These two conditions are extremely serious. Fever, bloating, and abdominal rigidity could worsen. Pain may lessen for a brief moment only to reappear as more diffused. These symptoms are indicative of a medical emergency.
Appendicitis must be diagnosed by a physician. The physician will begin with a physical examination and may request a blood sample, urine sample and a diagnostic imaging test such as an x-ray, scan or ultrasound, to confirm the diagnosis. In fact, appendicitis-related pain can be confused with that of other conditions including kidney stones, ovarian cyst, urinary tract infection, gastritis, gastroenteritis and Crohn's disease.
Surgery is the only treatment for appendicitis. The operation, known as an appendectomy, involves removing the appendix. It is a relatively simple procedure that must be performed as soon as the diagnosis has been confirmed. Antibiotics may be prescribed before or after surgery to prevent the spread of infection. Typically, length of hospital stay is no more than a few days.