Surprising News About Your Appendix — And Appendicitis

You probably never think about your appendix — unless you or a loved one experiences the pain of appendicitis.

Once thought to be a useless organ, scientists now believe the small, tube-like appendix plays a key role in keeping our immune systems healthy and strengthening the brain-gut connection.

The Gut-Brain Connection 

The appendix is part of the digestive or gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It is a four-inch tube attached to the first part of the large intestine (cecum), close to where the small and large intestine meet. This is your lower right abdomen.

The digestive system breaks down the food we eat so that our body’s cells can absorb the nutrients and energy they need to function. In addition, the GI system serves as a communication center for the brain. The brain and gut constantly send and receive signals about:

  • What we’re eating
  • How to digest what we’re eating and drinking
  • Our stress levels 
  • Our mood

The Appendix: A Safe House For Good Bacteria?

For many years, doctors and scientists thought the appendix was a vestigial organ – a body part no longer needed by modern man. 

Recent research finds the appendix may be a safe place for the good bacteria that lives in our digestive tract. Good bacteria are essential for digestion and in fighting disease. The body works hard to maintain a delicate balance, which includes the right mix of bacteria in our “gut microbiome.”

When we get sick, such as with diarrhea or a stomach virus, our body loses much of its good bacteria, found on the lining of the GI tract, along with white blood cells and other immune cells that fight infection. Studies show that the inside of the appendix contains this same material in larger amounts.

Scientists now believe that the appendix serves as a “safe house” protecting good bacteria during infection, and repopulating the GI tract once the infection is gone.

Scientists now believe that the appendix serves as a “safe house” protecting good bacteria during infection, and repopulating the GI tract once the infection is gone.

Is Your Abdominal Pain Appendicitis?

Surprising News Appendix Appendicitis small

Sometimes the appendix itself becomes infected. An inflamed appendix can be caused by:

  • A GI tract infection
  • Growths or stool blocking the appendix’s opening into the large intestine 
  • Trauma to the abdomen

There is no evidence that diet and nutrition play a role in causing or preventing appendicitis.

While appendicitis can occur to anyone at any age, it happens most often to people in their teens and 20s. Appendicitis is also the most common form of abdominal pain requiring surgery.

The primary symptom of appendicitis is abdominal pain. Other symptoms may include:

  • Fever 
  • Chills
  • Vomiting

If you show signs of appendicitis, it’s important to see a doctor, says L. Stewart Lowry, MD, FACS, Miami County Surgeons. Appendicitis can mimic other conditions. If left untreated, the appendix can burst, causing a serious infection.

To diagnose appendicitis, your doctor may:

  • Perform a physical exam
  • Check for dehydration
  • Perform blood tests, to check for an infection response
  • Perform urine tests, to rule out kidney stones or a urinary tract infection
  • Order imaging, such as an MRI, CT scan or ultrasound, to view the appendix

Treatment for Appendicitis 

Antibiotics and minimally invasive surgery to remove the appendix are the typical treatments for appendicitis.

Doctors remove the appendix to prevent it from bursting and to avoid a further, more serious infection.

However, as scientists learn more about the function of the appendix, some doctors are turning to more conservative treatment approaches in an effort to save the appendix so that it can continue its role in boosting the good bacteria in our gut. In uncomplicated cases of appendicitis, antibiotics may be the only treatment needed.

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