The appendix is a narrow tubular pouch attached to the intestines. When the appendix is blocked, it becomes inflamed and results in a condition termed appendicitis. If the blockage continues, the inflamed tissue becomes infected with bacteria and begins to die from a lack of blood supply, which finally results in the rupture of the appendix (perforated or ruptured appendix).
The American Journal of Epidemiology study found that appendicitis was a common condition affecting approximately 6.7% to 8.6% of the population. IN the U.S. 250,000 cases of appendicitis are reported annually. Individuals of any age may be affected, with the highest incidence occurring in the teens and twenties; however, rare cases of neonatal and prenatal appendicitis have been reported.
Increased vigilance in recognizing and treating potential cases of appendicitis is critical in the very young and elderly, as this population has a higher rate of complications. Appendicitis is the most common pediatric condition requiring emergency abdominal surgery.
Appendicitis typically begins with a vague pain in the middle of the abdomen often near the navel or "belly button" (umbilicus). The pain slowly moves to the right lower abdomen (toward the right hip) over the next 24 hours.
In the classic description, abdominal pain may be accompanied with nausea, vomiting, lack of appetite, and fever. All of these symptoms, however, occur in fewer than half of people who develop appendicitis. More commonly, people with appendicitis have any combination of these symptoms.
- Symptoms of appendicitis may take 4-48 hours to develop. During this time, a person developing appendicitis may have varying degrees of loss of appetite, vomiting, and abdominal pain. The person may have constipation or diarrhea, or there may be no change in bowel habits.
- Early symptoms are often hard to separate from other conditions includinggastroenteritis (an inflammation of the stomach and intestines). Many people admitted to the hospital for suspected appendicitis leave the hospital with a diagnosis of gastroenteritis; initially, true appendicitis is often misdiagnosed as gastroenteritis.
- Children and the elderly often have fewer symptoms, or cannot adequately describe their symptoms, which makes their diagnosis less obvious and the incidence of complications more frequent.
There is no clear cause of appendicitis. Fecal material is thought to be one possible cause of obstruction of the appendix. Bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites can result in infection, leading to the swelling of the tissues of the appendix wall.
The various infecting organisms include Yersinia species, adenovirus, cytomegalovirus, actinomycosis, Mycobacteria species, Histoplasma species, Schistosoma species, pinworms, and Strongyloides stercoralis. Swelling of the tissue from inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn's disease also may cause appendicitis. Appendicitis is not a hereditary disease and is not transmittable from person to person.
Once a diagnosis of appendicitis is made, an appendectomy usually is performed. Antibiotics almost always are begun prior to surgery and as soon as appendicitis is suspected.
There is a small group of patients in whom the inflammation and infection of appendicitis remain mild and localized to a small area. The body is able not only to contain the inflammation and infection but to resolve it as well. These patients usually are not very ill and improve during several days of observation. This type of appendicitis is referred to as "confined appendicitis" and may be treated with antibiotics alone. The appendix may or may not be removed at a later time.
On occasion, a person may not see their doctor until appendicitis with rupture has been present for many days or even weeks. In this situation, an abscess usually has formed, and the appendiceal perforation may have closed over. If the abscess is small, it initially can be treated with antibiotics; however, the abscess usually requires drainage.
A drain (a small plastic or rubber tube) usually is inserted through the skin and into the abscess with the aid of an ultrasound or CT scan that can determine the exact location of the abscess. The drain allows pus to flow from the abscess out of the body. The appendix may be removed several weeks or months after the abscess has resolved. This is called an interval appendectomy and is done to prevent a second attack of appendicitis.
How is an appendectomy done?
During an appendectomy, an incision two to three inches in length is made through the skin and the layers of the abdominal wall over the area of the appendix. The surgeon enters the abdomen and looks for the appendix which usually is in the right lower abdomen. After examining the area around the appendix to be certain that no additional problem is present, the appendix is removed.
This is done by freeing the appendix from its mesenteric attachment to the abdomen and colon, cutting the appendix from the colon, and sewing over the hole in the colon. If an abscess is present, the pus can be drained with drains that pass from the abscess and out through the skin. The abdominal incision then is closed.
Newer techniques for removing the appendix involve the use of the laparoscope. The laparoscope is a thin telescope attached to a video camera that allows the surgeon to inspect the inside of the abdomen through a small puncture wound (instead of a larger incision). If appendicitis is found, the appendix can be removed with special instruments that can be passed into the abdomen, just like the laparoscope, through small puncture wounds.
The benefits of the laparoscopic technique include less post-operative pain (since much of the post-surgery pain comes from incisions) and a speedier return to normal activities. An additional advantage of laparoscopy is that it allows the surgeon to look inside the abdomen to make a clear diagnosis in cases in which the diagnosis of appendicitis is in doubt. For example, laparoscopy is especially helpful in menstruating women in whom a rupture of an ovarian cyst may mimic appendicitis.
If the appendix is not ruptured (perforated) at the time of surgery, the patient generally is sent home from the hospital after surgery in one or two days. Patients whose appendix has perforated are sicker than patients without perforation, and their hospital stay often is prolonged (four to seven days), particularly if peritonitis has occurred. Intravenous antibiotics are given in the hospital to fight infection and assist in resolving any abscess.
Occasionally, the surgeon may find a normal-appearing appendix and no other cause for the patient's problem. In this situation, the surgeon may remove the appendix. The reasoning in these cases is that it is better to remove a normal-appearing appendix than to miss and not treat appropriately an early or mild case of appendicitis.