Appendicitis is the inflammation of the appendix, a worm-shaped pouch near the beginning of the large intestine. The appendix has no known function in the body, but it can become diseased. Appendicitis is a medical emergency. If the condition is left untreated, the appendix may rupture and cause a potentially fatal infection.
Appendicitis is the most common abdominal emergency found in children and young adults. One person in 15 develops appendicitis in his or her lifetime. The incidence is highest among males aged 10-14, and among females aged 15-19. More males than females develop appendicitis between puberty and age 25. It is rare in the elderly and in children under the age of two.
The hallmark symptom of appendicitis is increasingly severe abdominal pain. Since many different conditions can cause abdominal pain, an accurate diagnosis of appendicitis can be difficult. A timely diagnosis is important, however, because a delay can result in perforation, or rupture, of the appendix. When this happens, the infected contents of the appendix spill into the abdomen, potentially causing a serious infection of the abdomen called peritonitis.
Other conditions can have similar symptoms, especially in women. These include pelvic inflammatory disease, ruptured ovarian follicles, ruptured ovarian cysts, tubal pregnancies, and endometriosis. Various forms of stomach upset and bowel inflammation may also mimic appendicitis.
The treatment for acute (sudden, severe) appendicitis is an appendectomy, surgery to remove the appendix. Because of the potential for a life-threatening ruptured appendix, persons suspected of having appendicitis are often taken to surgery before the diagnosis is certain.
The most frequent complication of appendicitis is perforation. Perforation of the appendix can lead to a periappendiceal abscess (a collection of infected pus) or diffuse peritonitis (infection of the entire lining of the abdomen and the pelvis). The major reason for appendiceal perforation is delay in diagnosis and treatment. In general, the longer the delay between diagnosis and surgery, the more likely is perforation. The risk of perforation 36 hours after the onset of symptoms is at least 15%. Therefore, once appendicitis is diagnosed, surgery should be done without unnecessary delay.
A less common complication of appendicitis is blockage of the intestine. Blockage occurs when the inflammation surrounding the appendix causes the intestinal muscle to stop working, and this prevents the intestinal contents from passing. If the intestine above the blockage begins to fill with liquid and gas, the abdomen distends and nausea and vomiting may occur. It then may be necessary to drain the contents of the intestine through a tube passed through the nose and esophagus and into the stomach and intestine.
A feared complication of appendicitis is sepsis, a condition in which infecting bacteria enter the blood and travel to other parts of the body. This is a very serious, even life-threatening complication. Fortunately, it occurs infrequently.
The main symptom of appendicitis is abdominal pain. The pain is at first diffuse and poorly localized, that is, not confined to one spot. (Poorly localized pain is typical whenever a problem is confined to the small intestine or colon, including the appendix.) The pain is so difficult to pinpoint that when asked to point to the area of the pain, most people indicate the location of the pain with a circular motion of their hand around the central part of their abdomen. A second, common, early symptom of appendicitis is loss of appetite which may progress to nausea and even vomiting. Nausea and vomiting also may occur later due to intestinal obstruction.
As appendiceal inflammation increases, it extends through the appendix to its outer covering and then to the lining of the abdomen, a thin membrane called the peritoneum. Once the peritoneum becomes inflamed, the pain changes and then can be localized clearly to one small area. Generally, this area is between the front of the right hip bone and the belly button. The exact point is named after Dr. Charles McBurney--McBurney's point. If the appendix ruptures and infection spreads throughout the abdomen, the pain becomes diffuse again as the entire lining of the abdomen becomes inflamed.
Causes and Risk factors:
The causes of appendicitis are not well understood, but it is believed to occur as a result of one or more of these factors: an obstruction within the appendix, the development of an ulceration (an abnormal change in tissue accompanied by the death of cells) within the appendix, and the invasion of bacteria.Under these conditions, bacteria may multiply within the appendix. The appendix may become swollen and filled with pus (a fluid formed in infected tissue, consisting of while blood cells and cellular debris), and may eventually rupture. Signs of rupture include the presence of symptoms for more than 24 hours, a fever, a high white blood cell count, and a fast heart rate. Very rarely, the inflammation and symptoms of appendicitis may disappear but recur again later.
In most cases, a blockage inside the appendix probably starts a process in which the appendix becomes inflamed and infected. If inflammation continues without treatment, the appendix can rupture. A ruptured appendix spills bacteria-laden intestinal contents into the abdominal cavity, causing peritonitis, which may result in a life-threatening infection. A rupture also may cause an abscess (a pus-filled pocket of infection) to form. In a woman, the ovaries and fallopian tubes may become infected, and the resulting blockage of the fallopian tubes may cause infertility. A ruptured appendix also may allow bacteria to infect the bloodstream - a life-threatening condition called sepsis.
A careful examination is the best way to diagnose appendicitis. It is often difficult even for experienced physicians to distinguish the symptoms of appendicitis from those of other abdominal disorders. Therefore, very specific questioning and a thorough physical examination are crucial. The physician should ask questions, such as where the pain is centered, whether the pain has shifted, and where the pain began. The physician should press on the abdomen to judge the location of the pain and the degree of tenderness.
The typical sequence of symptoms is present in about 50% of cases. In the other half of cases, less typical patterns may be seen, especially in pregnant women, older patients, and infants. In pregnant women, appendicitis is easily masked by the frequent occurrence of mild abdominal pain and nausea from other causes. Elderly patients may feel less pain and tenderness than most patients, thereby delaying diagnosis and treatment, and leading to rupture in 30% of cases. Infants and young children often have diarrhea, vomiting, and fever in addition to pain.
While laboratory tests cannot establish the diagnosis, an increased white cell count may point to appendicitis. Urinalysis may help to rule out a urinary tract infection that can mimic appendicitis.
Patients whose symptoms and physical examination are compatible with a diagnosis of appendicitis are usually taken immediately to surgery, where a laparotomy (surgical exploration of the abdomen) is done to confirm the diagnosis. In cases with a questionable diagnosis, other tests, such as a computed tomography scan (CT) may be performed to avoid unnecessary surgery. An ultrasound examination of the abdomen may help to identify an inflamed appendix or other condition that would explain the symptoms. Abdominal x-rays are not of much value except when the appendix has ruptured.
Often, the diagnosis is not certain until an operation is done. To avoid a ruptured appendix, surgery may be recommended without delay if the symptoms point clearly to appendicitis. If the symptoms are not clear, surgery may be postponed until they progress enough to confirm a diagnosis.
When appendicitis is strongly suspected in a woman of child-bearing age, a diagnostic laparoscopy (an examination of the interior of the abdomen) is sometimes recommended before the appendectomy in order to be sure that a gynecological problem, such as a ruptured ovarian cyst, is not causing the pain. In this procedure, a lighted viewing tube is inserted into the abdomen through a small incision around the navel.
A normal appendix is discovered in about 10-20% of patients who undergo laparotomy because of suspected appendicitis. Sometimes the surgeon will remove a normal appendix as a safeguard against appendicitis in the future. During the surgery, another specific cause for the pain and symptoms of appendicitis is found for about 30% of these patients.
It can be difficult to diagnose appendicitis. The position of the appendix in the abdomen may vary. Most of the time the appendix is in the right lower abdomen, but the appendix, like other parts of the intestine, has a mesentery. This mesentery is a sheet-like membrane that attaches the appendix to other structures within the abdomen. If the mesentery is large, it allows the appendix to move around. In addition, the appendix may be longer than normal. The combination of a large mesentery and a long appendix allows the appendix to dip down into the pelvis (among the pelvic organs in women). It also may allow the appendix to move behind the colon (called a retro-colic appendix). In either case, inflammation of the appendix may act more like the inflammation of other organs, for example, a woman's pelvic organs.
The diagnosis of appendicitis also can be difficult because other inflammatory problems may mimic appendicitis. Therefore, it is common to observe patients with suspected appendicitis for a period of time to see if the problem will resolve on its own or develop characteristics that more strongly suggest appendicitis or, perhaps, another condition.
Other conditions can mimic appendicitis are:
Pelvic inflammatory disease: The right fallopian tube and ovary lie near the appendix. Sexually active women may contract infectious diseases that involve the tube and ovary. Usually, antibiotic therapy is sufficient treatment, and surgical removal of the tube and ovary are not necessary.
Inflammatory diseases of the right upper abdomen: Fluids from the right upper abdomen may drain into the lower abdomen where they stimulate inflammation and mimic appendicitis. Such fluids may come from a perforated duodenal ulcer, gallbladder disease, or inflammatory diseases of the liver, e.g., a liver abscess.
Right-sided diverticulitis: Although most diverticuli are located on the left side of the colon, they occasionally occur on the right side. When a right-sided diverticulum ruptures it can provoke inflammation they mimics appendicitis.
Kidney diseases: The right kidney is close enough to the appendix that inflammatory problems in the kidney-for example, an abscess-can mimic appendicitis.
Meckel's Diverticulitis: A Meckel's diverticulum is a small outpouching of the small intestine which usually is located in the right lower abdomen near the appendix. The diverticulum may become inflamed or even perforate (break open or rupture). If inflamed and/or perforated, it usually is removed surgically.
In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for appendicitis may include the following:
Blood tests: To check for signs of infection such as elevated white blood cell count.
Urine tests: To rule out a urinary tract infection.
Imaging procedures include:
Computed tomography scan (Also called a CT or CAT scan.) - A diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of x-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images (often called slices), both horizontally and vertically, of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general x-rays.
Ultrasound - A diagnostic technique which uses high-frequency sound waves to create an image of the internal organs.
X-ray - A diagnostic test which uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.
Appendicitis is most often treated with a combination of surgery and antibiotics. In addition to antibiotics, you will receive intravenous (IV) fluids and possibly medication to control vomiting. Exploratory surgery is performed if the doctor is not able to determine from the CT scan or ultrasound whether you have appendicitis. If appendicitis is confirmed, either from tests or exploratory surgery, the appendix is removed (appendectomy).
Surgery to remove the appendix, which is called an appendectomy, is the standard treatment for appendicitis.
If appendicitis is even suspected, doctors tend to err on the side of safety and quickly remove the appendix to avoid its rupture. If the appendix has formed an abscess, you may have two procedures: one to drain the abscess of pus and fluid, and a later one to remove the appendix.
Antibiotics are given before an appendectomy to fight possible peritonitis. General anesthesia is usually given, and the appendix is removed through a 4-inch incision or by laparoscopy. If you have peritonitis, the abdomen is also irrigated and drained of pus.
Within 12 hours of surgery you may get up and move around. You can usually return to normal activities in 2 to 3 weeks. If surgery is done with a laparoscope (a thin telescope-like instrument for viewing inside the abdomen), the incision is smaller and recovery is faster.
After an appendectomy, call your doctor if you have:
Increased pain in your abdomen.
Dizziness/feelings of faintness.
Blood in your vomit or urine.
Increased pain and redness in your incision.
Pus in the wound.
Medicine and medications:
Your health care provider may prescribe the following medications:
Medications taken to ease nausea (anti-emetics).
DISCLAIMER: This information should not substitute for seeking responsible, professional medical care.
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