Problems with any part of digestion can be unpleasant. At the mild end, you can find yourself up against some embarrassing gas and bloating. On the serious side of things, it is possible digestive issues could be life-threatening. One condition that could leave you in need of immediate medical attention comes from one of the smallest members of your digestive tract. Your appendix is a tiny organ that gives you no obvious benefit, but when something goes wrong with it, you could find yourself on a fast track to emergency life-saving surgery.
What is Your Appendix?
For all our knowledge of the human body, it turns out no one is strictly sure what your appendix does for you. This tiny, worm-shaped organ attached to the top of your large intestine has no obvious function in digestion. Some of the tissue in your appendix is lymphatic, which suggests it has a role to play in your immune system, but what exactly this role might be is unclear.
Unlike nearly all of your other internal organs, you can lose your appendix and not experience any obvious side effects. Some research suggests there may be a slight increase in the likelihood of digestive conditions such as Crohn’s disease if you have had your appendix removed, but more research is needed to know exactly why this is the case.
Your appendix secretes a form of mucus into your large intestine, and the opening this mucus flows through is the cause of this tiny organ’s only claim to fame. It is possible for the opening of your appendix to become blocked, which leads to rapid growth of bacteria. Eventually, this bacteria can affect the tissues of the appendix itself causing it to swell and, in extreme cases, to rupture in a condition known as appendicitis.
Causes of Appendicitis
The blockage of the outlet of your appendix is the main cause of appendicitis. Blockages, and the consequent inflammation and infection they cause, can happen for a variety of reasons including the following:
- enlarged tissues
- hardened fecal matter
- tearing or rips in abdominal tissue
Whatever the cause of the blockage or damage to your appendix, it is the subsequent infection that results that is medically concerning. Getting an infection in any organ in your abdomen can be serious, but the appendix has a particular tendency to swell and burst, spreading the infection throughout your abdominal cavity. An infection in your abdomen can rapidly become life-threatening, which is why appendicitis is taken very seriously by doctors.
Can Appendix Pain Go Away on its Own?
Make no mistake: acute appendicitis is a medical emergency. A ruptured appendix can quickly lead to a life-threatening infection in your abdominal cavity and requires immediate medical treatment. It is possible that some smaller infections that are caught early enough can be addressed with antibiotics alone, but in many cases you will need to have your appendix surgically removed.
Though surgeons are usually hesitant to perform rushed abdominal surgeries, an appendectomy, or the removal of the appendix, is something of an exception. Given the severity of infections that can follow appendix ruptures, doctors will typically take a more aggressive approach to treatment.
It is possible for some cases of appendicitis to resolve without treatment, but if you suspect you are having issues with your appendix, it is far wiser to consult with your health care provider rather than waiting things out in the hope it will get better on its own. It is possible to develop peritonitis, or the infection of the tissues surrounding your appendix and intestines, which can be fatal. It is also possible that an untreated case of appendicitis can create scarring as your body tries to fight the infection and resulting long-term inflammation associated with an abscess in your appendix.
How Do You Check if You Have Appendicitis?
The only way to know for certain if you have appendicitis is by going to see your doctor. You will first be asked to provide any relevant health information and then undergo a physical examination. Symptoms such as a sudden lack of appetite, swelling or tenderness in the lower-right side of the abdomen, and the presence of nausea or vomiting are some of the more common indications you may have appendicitis.
It is common for blood tests to be used in identifying different medical conditions, but this is not the case with appendicitis as there are no unique markers in your blood that indicate issues with your appendix. Your doctor will likely still order blood work to see if you have an elevated white blood cell count. This only confirms that you have some kind of infection in your body, but does not indicate which tissues might be involved.
Urinalysis and imaging of the abdomen are sometimes needed to rule out other conditions such as urinary tract infections or kidney stones. One of the challenges in treating appendicitis is that the pain associated with an inflamed appendix is not well localized. This can make it hard for patients to pin-point exactly what hurts, and make it a little more difficult for your doctor to come to a diagnosis.
Common Symptoms of Appendicitis
Even though you will need to talk to your doctor to officially be diagnosed with appendicitis, there are several common symptoms of appendicitis that can indicate what might be going on. Sudden abdominal pain and vomiting are two of the most well-known symptoms of appendicitis, but they are not the only indications you may be up against a potential appendix rupture. Other symptoms include:
- pain in the lower right side of the abdomen
- loss of appetite
- sudden pain that starts at your belly button and often moves to your lower right abdomen
- pain that is made worse by walking, coughing, or other sharp movements
- vomiting and nausea
- mild fever that worsens as the infection spreads
- abdominal bloating
Who is at Risk for Appendicitis?
Only about 7% of people are expected to have issues with their appendix during their lives, and not all of these cases will be severe. Cases are most common in people starting around age 10 and continuing into the twenties. If you are over the age of 30 and have not had appendicitis, it is unlikely you will have trouble with your appendix. Despite this, a small percentage of older people are occasionally treated for the disease or found to have scarring that indicates a past infection.
How is Appendix Pain Treated?
The first step in treating appendicitis is ensuring an accurate diagnosis. Inflammation of the appendix is sometimes difficult to differentiate from other gastrointestinal conditions. Once your doctor is certain you are suffering from appendicitis, they will then determine how advanced your condition is.
If your doctor believes your appendicitis has been caught early enough, in rare cases it may be possible to treat your condition by using antibiotics to help your body fight off the infection. Though this may seem like a preferred course of action, the severity of a burst appendix means doctors will typically opt for removing the offending organ rather than risking a complicated surgery later.
If it is determined you are at serious risk for a burst appendix, surgical removal of your appendix through a laparoscopic appendectomy will likely be the chosen course of treatment. In this form of minimally invasive surgery, doctors use specialized tools inserted through small incisions in your belly button and elsewhere in your abdomen to remove your appendix. Performing this surgery laparoscopically reduces your overall recovery time compared to traditional forms of surgery.
The most important thing to remember with appendicitis is that the earlier it is caught, the better off you will be. If your appendix has already burst, it is possible an abscess could form in your abdomen, which could create complications during surgery. This could mean you may have to undergo multiple procedures to drain the abscess and then later remove the appendix when it is safe.
The severity of a possible appendix rupture is reason enough to go see your doctor if you are having symptoms like abdominal bloating, vomiting, and severe pain. There is even more reason for caution as other serious gastrointestinal diseases can also be common causes of these symptoms.
If you are currently experiencing many of the symptoms of appendicitis, seek immediate medical attention. If you are not currently having worrying symptoms, but want to know more about your overall digestive health and how to take better care of your entire digestive tract, request an appointment with Cary Gastroenterology Associates today.