The appendix is a narrow tube in the body that is attached to the colon which collects useful bacteria, thereby providing individuals with a collection of bacteria from which to choose in the event of the gut being purged of these vital microorganisms. When the appendix becomes inflamed, it is called appendicitis and is believed to occur when the opening into the colon gets blocked. There are many ways in which the opening from the appendix into the colon can become blocked. For example, lymphatic tissue located in the appendix can become swollen, thereby blocking the appendix. In other instances, mucus or faeces harden and block the entrance.
When blockage occurs, the bacteria that are normally stored inside the appendix begin to divert to the walls of the appendix, causing it to become infected. The body, in its natural response to infection, attacks the bacteria resulting in inflammation. If the bacteria in the walls of the appendix continue to spread, then it is possible for the appendix to rupture, spreading the infection throughout the gut. It, however, is normally limited to the immediate area around the appendix.
Appendicitis can be identified with symptoms of diarrhoea; swelling of the abdomen; loss of appetite; nausea and vomiting; fever; decreased ability to pass gas in addition to constipation. However, the main symptom of appendicitis is abdominal pain which is not confined to one area initially. In the early stages, the belly pain felt can feel like indigestion or a precursor to gas. As the inflammation progresses, abdominal pain changes and is localised, meaning it is confined to one area, usually between the belly button and the right hip bone. This pain may worsen if the patient coughs walks or moves. There are some individuals, such as pregnant women, children under two and older persons who may not display any of the symptoms mentioned, and so may be in greater risk.
Appendicitis is often hard to diagnose due to its predisposition to mimic other medical conditions. However, medical professionals will check for guarding, which can be described as a muscle spasm within the abdominal wall. Involuntary guarding or rigidity of the abdomen indicates a punctured appendix. Another symptom doctors check for to ensure appendicitis is what is called the Obturator Sign. This is when pain in the lower abdomen is triggered by passive bending of the right hip and indicates that the obturator muscle is irritated by the infected appendix.
At times, the body may be successful in controlling the infection without the need of surgical interference. This happens only if the inflammation and infection is contained in one area and has not spread throughout the gut. As a result, the symptoms and associated pain will disappear. Usually, however, appendicitis is corrected with an appendectomy – an invasive surgery where the appendix is removed. The procedure has little to no risk and persons who have undergone the procedure are usually back to a normal routine after about three weeks, which includes less than a week’s stay in the hospital.