Inflammation and infection of the appendix is called appendicitis, a painful and potentially serious condition that typically calls for surgical removal of the appendix.
What is the appendix?
The appendix is a small finger-like projection that is closed at the end. It is located near the point where the large intestine (cecum) meets the small intestine (ileum).
The exact function of the hollow appendage is not clear. In the past the appendix was considered virtually useless, but some evidence now indicates it may act as a storage reservoir for “good” bacteria, keeping the digestive system in balance and helping the body fight infections. However, an infected appendix can be surgically removed without causing any health issues.
Due to its size and location, fecal material can accumulate in the appendix, causing blockage. Other causes of obstruction in the appendix include large lymphoid follicles that develop as a result of chronic infection, tumors, and, rarely, parasitic infestation.
Blockage in the appendix allows bacteria to grow and can lead to appendicitis – inflammation and infection of the appendix.
Symptoms of appendicitis
Appendicitis occurs in children and adults of all ages, although it occurs most frequently in those between the ages of 10 to 30.
When the appendix becomes infected or inflamed, it causes pain in the abdomen. The pain typically starts near the bellybutton and gradually travels to the lower right quadrant of the belly, although,in the early stages, the pain may be diffuse and hard to pinpoint.Additional symptoms of appendicitis may include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Increased pain with coughing or walking
- Abdominal distention or bloating
- Constipation or diarrhea
If appendicitis is not treated right away and the condition progresses, the appendix can rupture. This is a serious and potentially life-threatening event.
If your doctor suspects appendicitis, the first step will be a physical exam to evaluate your pain. Rebound tenderness – pain that occurs when pressure applied to the abdomen is suddenly released – abdominal tightness, guarding and pain located in the right lower quadrant of the abdomen are other signs that can point to appendicitis.
Blood work may be ordered to look for an elevated white blood count, indicating the presence of infection. Imaging tests, including x-rays, ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positive emissiontomography (PET) scan may all be useful in confirming the diagnosis.
Treatment of appendicitis
Surgery is the standard treatment for appendicitis. Appendectomy, surgical removal of the appendix, is done through open or laparoscopic surgery The less-invasive laparoscopic procedure is conducted through a series of small incisions made to accommodate a special video camera and tiny surgical instruments. It offers a quicker recovery time, less pain and shorter hospital stay.
If treatment is delayed, the appendix can rupture causing the infection to spread throughout the abdominal cavity. Sometimes, following a rupture, an abscess forms creating an accumulation of pus contained in a pouch.
When an abscess is present, your doctor will insert a tube into the abdomen to drain the abscess. Antibiotics will also be prescribed to treat the infection prior to the appendectomy.
A ruptured appendix is a serious event and requires a prolonged hospitalization and IV antibiotics.