Your Doctor

Appendicitis: What you need to know

The appendix is a small 2-4cm sac located by the lower-right part of the abdomen. It is a small outpouching from the large intestine. The old school of thought was that the appendix served no purpose however newer evidence suggests varying roles for this tiny piece of tissue. It is thought to be involved with development of the immune system and new research suggests that the seemingly useless organ provides a safe haven for good bacteria to hang out in the gut.

Medical jargon refers to the appendix as ‘vermiform appendix’ which translates to ‘worm-like’. And this is exactly how it appears jumbled amongst the rest of the writhing intestinal contents.

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Appendicitis refers to a situation causing inflammation of the appendix. This can be because the cells of the gut multiply to a level to block off the appendix, or more rarely, a faecolith /faecal impaction obstructs the appendix lumen. Acute appendicitis has an incidence of 7-12 per cent in the UK and is the most common abdominal surgical emergency, resulting in 70,000 appendectomies per year. A ruptured appendix can be life threatening so it important to read the signs early.

Know the Signs & Symptoms

Appendicitis can often have atypical symptoms which means timely diagnosis can be tricky. Symptoms of appendicitis can often be mistaken for other common problems such as the flu, food poisoning, menstrual cramps or urinary tract infections. 

Common symptoms of appendicitis include:

• Loss of appetite 

• Abdominal pain at the lower right part of the abdomen

• Abdominal swelling 

• Nausea or vomiting 

• Diarrhoea or Constipation 

• Fever

• Inability to pass gas or a sense you need to pass stool

Management of Appendicitis

A significant percentage of cases can be managed without resorting to surgery. Using ultrasound scanning and intravenous antibiotics, any inflammation and infection can be eradicated conservatively. If more severe, surgery is the only option. 

Using small abdominal incisions (keyhole surgery), a surgeon can remove the inflamed appendix and clean the area. An appendix removal takes on average just eight minutes. Post-operative recovery takes around a week if strenuous activities are avoided and wounds are cared for properly. 

3 Ways to Help ‘Avoid’ Appendicitis 

There are no evidence based steps to stop the development of appendicitis, however these are some useful tips:

1. Don’t dismiss the symptoms. If you are suffering from any of the above symptoms do not shy away from investigations to rule out appendicitis.

2. Increase the amount of fibre in your diet. Split peas, lentils and black beans are fibre-rich foods that you could add easily to any meal. These foods aid the digestive system and will reduce the likelihood of constipation.

3. Some believe the appendix is related to the immune system – playing a part in the body’s ability to fight off infections. Keep your system in top form by reducing stress, sleeping well, eating healthily and exercising regularly.