Appendicitis refers to an inflammation of the appendix, which is a part of the large intestine. The appendix is a small, worm-like outgrowth that is located at the junction between the small intestine and the large intestine. Due to its characteristic shape, the appendix is also referred to as the vermiform appendix.
The Appendix and Appendicitis
For a long time, the appendix was thought to be a vestigial organ with no significant function in the human body. However, recent research suggests that the appendix may have a role to play in the immune system. The appendix also houses normal intestinal flora or gut bacteria.A blockage in the appendix can result in inflammation.
In such cases, the bacteria in the appendix grow rapidly and cause infection. The appendix may swell due to the resultant accumulation of pus. In the absence of immediate medical treatment, an inflamed appendix can burst. A burst appendix is a potentially life-threatening condition. The preferred treatment for appendicitis is surgical removal of the inflamed appendix (also known as appendectomy).
Every year, around 250,000 new cases of appendicitis occur in the United States. It is estimated that around 7% of Americans will get appendicitis in their lives. Although appendicitis can occur in people of any age, teenagers and young adults are more commonly affected. Also, men have a relatively higher risk of getting appendicitis compared to women.
Read more on appendix abscess.
Do I have appendicitis?
Appendicitis could be mistaken for a variety of other abdominal problems. Examples of conditions that may cause signs and symptoms similar to that of appendicitis include intestinal obstructions, diverticulitis, colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, gastroenteritis, perforation caused by peptic ulcers, pancreatitis, enterocolitis, urinary tract infections, and stones in the kidney and gallbladder.
In women, endometriosis, ovarian cysts and pelvic inflammatory disease may cause signs and symptoms that resemble those of appendicitis. All these conditions need to be ruled out before confirming the diagnosis as appendicitis. A characteristic feature of appendicitis is severe and abrupt pain in the abdominal region where the appendix is located.
This pain tends to worsen within hours. Abdominal pain in the lower right quadrant is relatively more common in male teenagers and young adults. However, appendicitis could occur in any age group and gender. In fact, appendicitis is one of the most common non-gynecological causes of surgery in pregnant women.
In rare cases, even newborns can develop appendicitis.Since abdominal pain is a common symptom of many digestive problems, people tend to ignore the pain due to appendicitis and delay seeking medical attention. However, this could lead to serious complications, especially if the appendix bursts.
How to Spot Appendicitis
In most cases that get reported to a doctor in the emergency room, the symptoms of appendicitis last for not more than 48 hours. However, abdominal pain may last for as long as two weeks in some cases. The abdominal pain in appendicitis is typically severe enough to cause the patient to curl up with knees bent towards the abdomen. This curling up is an attempt to prevent worsening of the pain.
Pain in the area of the belly button
Abdominal pain in the umbilical area is one of the earliest symptoms of appendicitis. In some cases, the pain may also be felt initially in the upper middle region of the abdomen (also known as the epigastric region). With the worsening of the inflammation in the appendix, the pain may shift from the umbilical or epigastric region to the right lower quadrant of the abdomen.
Nausea and vomiting
Nausea is prevalent in almost all cases of appendicitis. The nauseating feelings may begin as the abdominal pain becomes perceptible. As the pain worsens, the nausea also intensifies. Vomiting also occurs in about 50% of the patients, typically after the onset of abdominal pain. However, it is not as reliable an indicator of appendicitis as nausea and abdominal pain.
Loss of appetite
A loss of appetite also occurs during the early stages of appendicitis. However, it is not a specific symptom of appendicitis, and does not occur in all cases. A loss of appetite can also occur in other diseases. The extent of the loss of appetite also depends on the intensity of the abdominal pain. Due to the severe pain, patients suffering from appendicitis may even refuse to drink water.
Pain in the lower right quadrant of the abdomen
The appendix is located in the lower right quadrant of the abdomen. Therefore, the pain in appendicitis is typically felt in this area, especially when it worsens. In the initial stages, the pain may arise in the umbilical region. However, it quickly shifts to the lower right quadrant of the abdomen.
By the time the pain settles in this abdominal area, the patient may display other symptoms such as lack of appetite, nausea and vomiting. The painful area in the lower right quadrant of the abdomen is also referred to as the McBurney’s point. However, pain may not always be located in this area. For example, pain due to appendicitis in pregnant women may not be located at the McBurney’s point.
Other signs and symptoms of appendicitis
In addition to the signs and symptoms mentioned above, appendicitis may also cause late-stage symptoms such as abdominal bloating, low-grade fever, constipation and diarrhea. Abdominal bloating is usually seen after the inflammation worsens. A low-grade fever may also occur after the appearance of other signs and symptoms. Changes in bowel habits are usually not noticed by the patient during the acute phase of appendicitis.
Appendicitis is a Medical Emergency
Appendicitis is a serious condition that can lead to potentially life-threatening complications within a short time. Therefore, all cases of appendicitis should be treated as medical emergencies. The serious complications of appendicitis occur when the inflamed appendix bursts.
Read more on signs of burst appendix.
Signs and symptoms that may occur due to a burst appendix include rapid heart rate, high fever, chills, cold skin, chest pain, confusion, dizziness, rapid breathing, pale skin, reduced urine output, low blood pressure, bluish tinge on the lips, and fainting. The presence of these signs and symptoms is very serious and warrants immediate medical attention.