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What Does the Appendix Do? Things to Know

What is your appendix?

Your appendix is a thin tube in your lower right abdomen. It sits where your small intestine meets your large intestine.

Historically, many people have believed the appendix serves little purpose. When it does get attention, it’s usually because it’s become infected. But the reputation of the appendix is improving. Researchers are learning that your appendix may play a role in good health. Experts are also developing less invasive ways to treat infections of your appendix.

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Function

What does your appendix do?

Your appendix is a 4-inch-long tube. It’s attached to the first part of your large intestine. Its exact function is unclear. Some people believe that it’s an evolutionary holdover that provides no benefits to your health.

This conventional wisdom has led to the widespread use of appendectomies to prevent and treat disease. For example, appendicitis happens when your appendix becomes inflamed. If you’re male, your lifetime risk of appendicitis is 8.6 percent, warn researchers in the World Journal of Gastroenterology. If you’re female, your lifetime risk is 6.7 percent. To treat it, doctors would historically perform an appendectomy to remove your appendix.

Many appendectomies are used to prevent rather than treat disease. According to the study published in World Journal of Gastroenterology, the rate of appendectomies is higher than the rate of appendicitis. An estimated 36 incidental appendectomies are required to prevent one case of appendicitis.

Appendicitis can pose risks to your health, but so can surgery. Some people wonder if preventive surgery is the best approach. Contrary to conventional wisdom, your appendix might serve a purpose. It might be a haven for useful bacteria in your body. These useful bacteria might help promote good digestion and support your immune system.

For years, researchers have noticed that appendicitis increases when communities introduce sanitary water systems. Such modern conveniences may lead to fewer friendly organisms in our environments. This may lead to “biome depletion” in your body. In turn, this may cause your immune system to become overactive. It may leave your body vulnerable to certain disorders such as, appendicitis.

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Appendicitis

What happens when your appendix becomes inflamed?

When your appendix becomes inflamed, it’s called appendicitis. It’s usually caused by a bacterial infection. The infection might start in your stomach and travel to your appendix. It might also arise from a hardened piece of feces in your intestinal tract.

The symptoms of appendicitis can vary. They can include:

  • pain in the lower right part of your abdomen
  • vomiting
  • fever

Without treatment, you could develop an abscess or ruptured appendix. This can be a life-threatening condition and warrants immediate medical attention.

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Diagnosis

How is appendicitis diagnosed?

If you suspect you have appendicitis, make an appointment with your doctor. To diagnose your condition, they will ask you about your symptoms and conduct a physical exam. They may also order lab work and imaging tests.

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Treatment

How is appendicitis treated?

The traditional approach to treating appendicitis is surgery. More and more, doctors are turning to minimally invasive surgery, or laparoscopy. To perform minimally invasive surgery, your doctor will typically use two or more short incisions instead of one longer incision. Compared to traditional “open” surgery, this usually results in:

  • shorter hospital stay
  • less pain
  • quicker recovery
  • lower rates of complications

In some cases, your doctor might try to avoid surgery altogether. A recent review of research published in the British Medical Journal found that antibiotics might be the best treatment for uncomplicated appendicitis. Using antibiotics rather than surgery appears to lower the risk of complications by at least 31 percent. It appears to be a safe and effective option for uncomplicated appendicitis.

Your doctor can use imaging techniques to learn if your appendicitis is uncomplicated or requires surgery.

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Outlook

What’s the outlook for appendicitis?

If you have an appendectomy, your doctor should teach you how to take care of yourself afterward. It may take a few weeks or longer to recover, suggests the Mayo Clinic. Ask your doctor when you can expect to resume normal activities.

An appendectomy can help treat an acute problem, but it might raise your risk of other issues later on. According to a study published in the journal Movement Disorders, getting an appendectomy slightly increases your chances of developing Parkinson’s disease 10 years or more after the operation. According to researchers in the journal PLoS One, appendectomy might also raise your risk of developing colorectal cancer, particularly rectal cancer.

Ask your doctor for more information about your specific condition, treatment options, and outlook. They can help you understand the potential benefits and risks of an appendectomy.

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