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Understanding appendicitis

Appendicitis is a medical emergency. Learn the signs of the problem and what you should do about it.

Mild abdominal pain isn't unusual, and it will often clear up without treatment. But if the pain is sudden and severe, and it occurs with certain other symptoms, such as fever and vomiting, it could be a sign of something more serious—appendicitis.

A structure without a function

The appendix is a tubelike structure about 3 to 6 inches long that's attached to the large intestine in the lower-right portion of the abdomen. The appendix has no known function and, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), removing it usually causes no change in digestive function.

Anyone can get appendicitis but, according to the NIDDK, it occurs most often in people in their teens and twenties.

Sudden pain

Appendicitis happens when the appendix becomes blocked. Causes of blockage include a buildup of feces or, less commonly, swelling due to an infection. Once it's blocked, the appendix becomes inflamed, causing symptoms such as:

  • Sudden pain that may start near the belly button and then move to the lower-right abdomen.
  • Tenderness. The lower-right abdomen may be painful to touch.
  • Nausea and loss of appetite.
  • Vomiting.
  • Constipation or diarrhea.
  • Fever.

For older people, the pain may be less severe. And children may feel the pain elsewhere in the abdomen.

Seek treatment right away

Appendicitis is a medical emergency, and diagnosis must be made quickly. It's important to call your doctor right away or go to the hospital if you suspect appendicitis. If it goes untreated, an inflamed appendix can quickly burst, which can lead to a dangerous infection called peritonitis, according to the NIDDK.

Your history of symptoms and a physical exam often provide enough information to make a diagnosis, but sometimes tests such as blood work, x-rays or ultrasound are needed.

The treatment for appendicitis is often surgical removal of the appendix, or appendectomy. This can be done with either conventional open surgery or laparoscopic (minimally invasive) surgery. Conventional surgery requires one short incision. Laparoscopic surgery requires several smaller incisions to provide access for a viewing device called a laparoscope and tiny surgical instruments.

For uncomplicated acute appendicitis, antibiotics can be an alternative to surgery.

You may be discharged from the hospital the same day if you have laparoscopic surgery, and in one or two days if you have open surgery. Recovery normally takes only three to four days, although your doctor may tell you not to lift heavy objects for several weeks.

reviewed 11/10/2020

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