What Is the Appendix?
The appendix is a tiny, three- or four-inch tube projecting off your cecum (where the small intestine and the large intestine, also called the colon, join). The appendix is located in the lower right part of your abdomen.
The appendix is a leftover from primitive times, a leftover that has no function in the modern human body. It becomes a medical concern when something clogs it—usually feces, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). A bacterial or viral infection in the digestive tract can cause the lymph nodes in that area to swell, and possibly block the appendix. In either case, the appendix may become inflamed—a medical emergency known as appendicitis.
When appendicitis occurs, the standard treatment is prompt removal of the appendix. Removing the appendix appears to have no effect on how the digestive tract works, the NIDDK says.
It's not certain why some people get appendicitis. Although it can occur at any age, it is most common between the ages of 10 and 30, the NIDDK says. Some researchers have noted a tendency for it to run in families, but no one has established a firm hereditary link.
Similarly, no one has recommended a diet, lifestyle or other course of action to prevent appendicitis. The only prevention is making sure you know the warning signs.
The main symptom is a pain in the lower right portion of the abdomen, or a pain starting in the middle of the abdomen and traveling to the lower right. The pain becomes worse with movement, deep breathing, coughing, and sneezing. This pain may be accompanied by constipation, nausea and a low-grade fever, usually no higher than 102 degrees. Not everyone with appendicitis has all these symptoms, the NIDDK says.
Most diagnoses of appendicitis are made from those symptoms. An abdominal x-ray, a CT scan or an ultrasound can help confirm the diagnosis, but sometimes, concern about the symptoms is enough reason to remove the appendix.
If the doctor catches the problem early enough, he or she will remove the appendix before it bursts. Fortunately, deaths from appendicitis are quite rare in the United States these days.
Surgery is usually done by making a small incision in the lower abdomen or with laparoscopy, a procedure that uses precision instruments that require only three or four tiny incisions. The latter procedure may have less pain and faster healing time, the NIDDK says.