Q. What does the appendix do?
A. Most people never think about their appendix – until it's causing them severe pain. The appendix is a small, finger-shaped pouch attached to the start of the large intestine on the lower right side of the abdomen. Its job is to protect good bacteria in the gut. It's suggested that the good bacteria housed in the appendix can repopulate the digestive system and help you recover from infections after you experience diarrhea or another illness. Most people only think about their appendix when it becomes inflamed, requiring an emergency procedure to have it removed.
This inflammation of the appendix is called appendicitis. It's a medical emergency that can quickly evolve into a life-threatening situation if not treated right away. Without treatment, an inflamed appendix can rupture and cause a potentially fatal infection.
Appendicitis is usually caused by a blockage of fecal matter inside the appendix. The lining of the appendix and the intestines work to fight bacterial infections and can swell, leading to the obstruction. It can also be caused by a traumatic abdominal injury, tumors or a foreign body (like something being swallowed or an intrauterine device).
Symptoms of appendicitis are wide-ranging — what starts with bloating and pain around the belly button routinely moves to the lower right side of the stomach and becomes sharp and continuous. Your belly will most likely be tender to the touch, and sneezing, coughing, deep breathing or sudden movements can cause the pain to intensify.
Appendicitis is serious and can result in death without timely treatment. An inflamed appendix can rupture in two to three days after symptoms begin. Even if your symptoms aren't typical (i.e. stabbing abdominal pain), you need to act quickly. Because a ruptured appendix can spill dangerous organism throughout the abdomen, it's important to see a doctor as soon as possible."
Dr. Benjamin Kellogg is a board-certified general surgeon with University Surgical Associates and a member of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society.