The appendix is a narrow, finger-shaped pouch that projects out from the colon. Appendicitis occurs when the appendix becomes inflamed and filled with pus. This small structure has no known essential purpose, but that doesn’t mean it can’t cause problems.
Appendicitis causes pain that typically begins around your navel and then shifts to your lower right abdomen. Appendicitis pain typically increases over a period of 12 to 18 hours and eventually becomes very severe. Appendicitis can affect anyone, but it most often occurs in people between the ages of 10 and 30. The standard appendicitis treatment is surgical removal of the appendix.
Signs and symptoms of appendicitis may include:
- Aching pain that begins around your navel and often shifts to your lower right abdomen
- Pain that becomes sharper over several hours
- Tenderness that occurs when you apply pressure to your lower right abdomen
- Sharp pain in your lower right abdomen that occurs when the area is pressed on and then the pressure is quickly released (rebound tenderness)
- Pain that worsens if you cough, walk or make other jarring movements
- Loss of appetite
- Low-grade fever
- Inability to pass gas
- Abdominal swelling
The location of your pain may vary, depending on your age and the position of your appendix. Young children or pregnant women, especially, may have appendicitis pain in different places.
Make an appointment with a doctor if you or your child experiences signs or symptoms that worry you. Abdominal pain so severe that a person is unable to sit still or find a comfortable position requires immediate medical attention.
The cause of appendicitis isn’t always clear. Sometimes appendicitis can occur as a result of:
- An obstruction. Food waste or a hard piece of stool (fecal stone) can become trapped in an orifice of the cavity that runs the length of your appendix.
- An infection. Appendicitis may also follow an infection, such as a gastrointestinal viral infection, or it may result from other types of inflammation.
In both cases, bacteria may subsequently invade rapidly, causing the appendix to become inflamed and filled with pus. If not treated promptly, the appendix can rupture.
Appendicitis can cause serious complications.
A ruptured appendix
If your appendix ruptures, the contents of your intestines and infectious organisms can leak into your abdominal cavity. This can cause an infection of your abdominal cavity (peritonitis).
A pocket of puss that forms in the abdomen
Infection and the seepage of intestinal contents may form an abscess — a pocket of infection (appendiceal abscess). Appendiceal abscess requires treatment before the abscess tears, causing a more widespread infection of the abdominal cavity.
The pain from appendicitis may change over time, so establishing a diagnosis can sometimes be difficult. In addition, abdominal pain can arise from a number of health problems other than appendicitis. To help diagnose appendicitis, your doctor will likely take a history of your signs and symptoms and perform a thorough examination of your abdomen.
Tests and procedures used to diagnose appendicitis include:
- Physical exam to assess your pain. Your doctor may apply gentle pressure on the painful area. When the pressure is suddenly released, appendicitis pain will often feel worse, signaling that the adjacent peritoneum is inflamed. Other signs your doctor may watch for include abdominal rigidity and a tendency to stiffen your abdominal muscles in response to pressure over the inflamed appendix (guarding).
- Blood test. This allows your doctor to check for a high white blood cell count, which may indicate an infection.
- Urine test. Your doctor may want you to have a urinalysis to make sure that a urinary tract infection or a kidney stone isn’t causing your pain. If it is a kidney stone, red blood cells are usually seen during microscopic examination of the urine.
- Imaging tests. Your doctor may also recommend an abdominal X-ray, an ultrasound scan or a computerized tomography (CT) scan to help confirm appendicitis or find other causes for your pain.
Appendicitis treatment usually involves surgery to remove the inflamed appendix. Other treatments may be necessary depending on your situation.
Surgery to remove the appendix (appendectomy)
Appendectomy can be performed as open surgery using one abdominal incision that’s about 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters) long. Or appendicitis surgery can be done as a laparoscopic operation, which involves several small abdominal incisions. During a laparoscopic appendectomy, the surgeon inserts special surgical tools and a video camera into your abdomen to remove your appendix.
In general, laparoscopic surgery allows you to recover faster and heal with less scarring. But laparoscopic surgery isn’t appropriate for everyone. If your appendix has ruptured and infection has spread beyond the appendix or if an abscess is present, you may require an open appendectomy. An open appendectomy allows your surgeon to clean the abdominal cavity.
Expect to spend one or two days in the hospital after your appendectomy.
Draining an abscess before appendix surgery
If an abscess is present, it may be drained by placing a tube through the skin and into the abscess. Appendectomy can be performed several weeks later after the infection is under control.
Expect a few weeks of recovery after surgery to remove your appendix. If your appendix burst, it may take longer to recover. During this recovery time, you can take steps to help your body heal after surgery, such as:
- Avoid strenuous activity at first. If your appendectomy was done laparoscopically, limit your activity for the first three to five days after surgery. If you had an open appendectomy, limit your activity for the first 10 to 14 days after surgery. Ask your doctor when you can go back to your normal activity.
- Support your abdomen when you cough. You may feel abdominal pain when you cough, laugh or make other movements. Place a pillow over your abdomen and apply pressure before these movements to brace yourself.
- Call your doctor if your pain medications aren’t helping. Being in pain puts extra stress on your body and slows the healing process. If you’re still in pain despite your pain medications, call your doctor.
- Get up and moving when you’re ready. Start slowly and increase your activity as you feel up to it. Start with short walks.
- Sleep when you feel tired. As your body heals, you may find you feel sleepier than usual. Take it easy and rest when you need to.