The appendix is a small, finger-like pouch that projects from your colon. The function of the appendix is currently unknown. Yet, despite its expendability, the appendix can still cause life-threatening danger if it becomes inflamed and filled with pus, a dangerous condition known as appendicitis. Every year, more than 250,000 cases of appendicitis are reported in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While appendicitis can affect anyone, it is most common in people between the ages of 10 and 30. Causes of appendicitis are not always clear, but often the condition is due to an obstruction in the opening of the appendix or an infection.
The majority of people with appendicitis have classic symptoms that can be easily diagnosed by a doctor. Abdominal pain is usually the primary symptom of appendicitis. So how do you tell an ordinary stomach ache apart from appendicitis?
According to the National Institutes of Health, abdominal pain associated with appendicitis:
• Occurs suddenly, often causing a person to wake up at night
• Occurs before other symptoms
• Begins near the belly button and them moves lower and to the right
• Is new and unlike any pain felt before
• Gets worse in a matter of hours
• Gets worse when moving around, taking deep breaths, coughing or sneezing
It’s important to note, that the location of your pain in the case of appendicitis may vary, depending on factors such as age and the position of your appendix.
Appendicitis may also cause other symptoms, including:
• Loss of appetite
• Constipation or diarrhea
• Inability to pass gas
• A low-grade fever that follows other symptoms
• Abdominal swelling
• The feeling that passing stool will relieve discomfort
When to seek help
Appendicitis needs to be treated promptly to reduce the risk of the appendix rupturing. If you or your child experiences symptoms that you suspect are appendicitis, seek medical attention right away, especially if there is abdominal pain so severe that you are unable to find a comfortable position. Diagnosis usually involves a physical examination and consideration of medical history, but may also require laboratory or imaging tests to confirm diagnosis.
Surgery to remove the inflamed appendix is the standard treatment for appendicitis, and is called an appendectomy. Removal of the appendix has not been shown to have adverse effects on health after recovery. Recovery generally lasts a few weeks, and during this time, strenuous activity should be limited and medication may be used to alleviate pain.
There is some evidence that antibiotics can be used instead of surgery for a limited number of people whose infections meets specific guidelines. Early appendicitis, without blockage or rupture, may qualify. Treatment decisions should always be guided by an experienced surgeon.
Dr. Jeremy Albin is affiliated with Columbus Community Hospital.