Of all your body’s many functions, modern medicine is still confused about one thing: the appendix. It’s possible your appendix fights off some infections, but doctors aren’t quite sure.
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We all can survive without the 2- to 4-inch, worm-shaped organ. But if it happens to get infected or bursts — causing appendicitis — you’re in trouble. You’ll need medical attention right away, says general surgeon William O’Brien, MD.
“Appendicitis is a serious condition,” he says. “And, it’s always an emergency.”
What does appendix pain feel like?
Appendicitis can start out feeling like a stomachache. But Dr. O’Brien says that the pain will eventually move down to your right lower quadrant, located between your rib cage and hip bone. “Then it feels like an ache and is tender,” he says.
Go to the emergency room or call your doctor right away if you notice new or worsening pain. For pregnant women, they will experience pain in the upper right side.
“Typically, people say that they know they have appendicitis when they’re on the ride to the emergency room because any bumps or movement hurt,” says O’Brien. “It’s not surprising that the pain is worse.”
Everyone has a low risk — roughly 8% — for developing appendicitis during their life. It’s most common in adults, ages 18 to 25, and in children, ages 10 to 19. In fact, it’s the most frequent reason for emergency surgery in kids.
Appendicitis isn’t hereditary, and you can’t pass it to others. But there’s nothing you or your doctor can do to prevent it or reduce your risk of getting it, he says.
What causes appendix pain?
The appendix gets infected when there’s a blockage, Dr. O’Brien explains.
Blockages can be caused by:
- Hardened fecal matter.
- Enlarged tissues.
- Abdominal rips or tearing.
Left untreated, an infection can cause your appendix to burst. This can spread the infection and may cause inflammation in the lining of the abdomen.
Where do you feel appendix pain?
While you may think you just have stomach pains, pay attention to where the pain is in your abdomen. If you have appendicitis, you will start feeling a dull, aching pain located in your lower right quadrant. “It’s not until the pain moves down to the right side and is persistent over a period of six to 12 hours that appendicitis is more likely,” says O’Brien.
Also, be aware of your level of pain — especially if it’s not a type of pain you’ve had before. “We all get abdominal pain on and off and it’s not appendicitis necessarily,” he says. “But it’s something that gets worse over time and won’t go away.”
What symptoms should you watch for?
Fortunately, appendicitis symptoms show up quickly — usually within the first 24 hours. Signs can appear anywhere from four to 48 hours after a problem occurs.
It’s especially important to see a doctor if you also experience:
Appendicitis has similar symptoms to some other conditions. So, it’s important to have a doctor determine what’s wrong, Dr. O’Brien says.
Appendicitis symptoms can mimic:
- Crohn’s disease.
- Ulcerative colitis.
- Gallbladder problems.
- Urinary tract infections.
- Pelvic inflammatory disease.
- Stomach problems.
- Intestinal blockages.
What are your treatment options?
There’s no blood test to identify appendicitis. A blood sample can show an increase in your white blood cell count, which points to an infection.
Your doctor also may order an abdominal or pelvic CT scan or X-rays. Doctors typically use ultrasound to diagnose appendicitis in children.
Doctors can treat appendicitis in two ways:
- Antibiotics: In less severe cases, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. However, most appendicitis cases require surgery (an appendectomy) to remove the appendix.
- Surgery: If your appendix hasn’t burst, your doctor may remove it through a small cut in the belly button, a laparoscopy. This procedure works well for people of all ages. Recovery typically takes between two and four weeks.
A ruptured appendix will often require a longer recovery time. The surgeon will clean out any infection that’s spread in the abdomen and this can often be performed through a camera inserted through a small cut in the belly button as well.
The bottom line? Don’t hesitate to seek medical care if you notice potential signs of appendicitis, Dr. O’Brien says.
“Treatment has the best results if appendicitis is found early,” he says.