When there’s a pain in your abdomen, the chances are good that it’s something simple like gas or constipation. However, some small part of you may wonder: is it appendicitis?
What Is Appendicitis?
Appendicitis is not that common of a condition — it occurs in about 5% of the population over a lifetime according to National Institutes of Health (NIH). However, appendicitis is the most common reason for urgent abdominal surgery in the United States.
Your appendix is about the size of your little finger and is located where your small and large intestine meet. The function of the appendix is still up for debate, but it is non-essential for adults. Removing the appendix doesn’t result in any long-term health consequences.
Appendicitis occurs when the appendix becomes blocked, usually by a hard piece of stool, resulting in infection, inflammation and a buildup of bacteria and pus. Although other things like inflammatory bowel disease, parasites, ulcers or enlarged tissue in the abdomen can cause the blockage, it’s very uncommon. Once the appendix is blocked, it will continue to become larger and more swollen until it bursts.
A burst appendix is a surgical emergency that can be life threatening. When the appendix ruptures, it can spread the infected material throughout the abdominal cavity and lead to a more serious infection.
“Appendicitis is most common in people in their teens and twenties, but it can happen at any age,” said Andrew Sweeny, DO, from Samaritan Albany Surgical Associates. “Unfortunately, if you still have an appendix, there’s really nothing you can do to reduce your chances of getting appendicitis.”
Fortunately, appendicitis is treatable. If caught early, treating an inflamed appendix may include antibiotics and likely involve surgery to remove the organ. Surgery is usually completed using laparoscopic techniques with smaller incisions. If the appendix is ruptured, the incisions may need to be larger so the surgeon can clean the abdominal cavity. “The risk of complications is much lower if we can remove the appendix before it bursts,” said Dr. Sweeny. “The whole goal of surgery is to take out the infection in the appendix and keep it from spreading to other areas of the body.”
“At the beginning, appendicitis can seem like constipation or gas, sometimes even the flu,” said Dr. Sweeny. “The main factor that separates it from other conditions is a sharp pain that starts near the belly button and travels to the lower right side of the abdomen.”
Some people may experience pain in their lower back or pelvis rather than their abdomen, depending on where their appendix sits. Women who are pregnant and young children may not have pain in the typical location or be able to describe their pain.
Abdominal pain will likely be the first symptom. The pain will get progressively worse, often in a matter of hours. It may also be worse as you move, cough or take a deep breath. After that you may experience:
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea or vomiting
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Inability to pass gas
- Low-grade fever
- Swelling in your abdomen
- Feel like having a bowel movement will relieve discomfort
When to Head to the Hospital
Dr. Sweeny recommends that if the pain is still severe after 12 hours, you should be seen in the emergency department. The appendix is more likely to rupture after it has been inflamed for 24 to 36 hours.
“Diagnosing appendicitis can be complicated, so it’s not something you should try to diagnose yourself,” said Dr. Sweeny.
At the hospital, appendicitis is usually diagnosed using imaging like a CT scan or ultrasound to look for inflammation. The medical team may also order blood tests to look for evidence of an infection.
“Sharp pain in the abdomen can come from many other causes that don’t need surgery,” said Dr. Sweeny. “But in general, if you are having severe pain for more than 12 hours, it’s a good idea to see a doctor.”
Read patient Suzy Conway’s experience when she discovered she needed emergency apendicitis surgery.
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