The appendix is a small, elliptical pouch that protrudes from the colon, usually on the lower right side of the abdomen. There is debate over whether this tiny organ has any medical purpose in the human body, though it is typically regarded as being vestigial. If the appendix becomes infected, serious damage can be done to the body.
A bacterial infection in the appendix causes this small organ to swell. Though the appendix is very small, the pain of appendicitis may cause tremendous pain. This pain typically begins behind the belly button, then shifts, usually towards the right side. As the infection worsens and the inflammation becomes more severe, the pain tends to become worse. Patients of any age may develop appendicitis, but it is most common in patients between ten and thirty years old.
Appendicitis can only be properly diagnosed by a visit to the doctor. Your family doctor will likely take your medical history and perform a physical exam. The true red flag of appendicitis during a physical exam is known as rebound tenderness, in which the doctor presses on the affected area but the pain becomes worse when the pressure is released. If rebound tenderness is present, your doctor will likely recommend a more thorough diagnostic test, such as a CT scan. Once appendicitis is confirmed, surgery will likely be needed, followed by a course of strong antibiotics.
If appendicitis is not diagnosed and treated in a timely manner, serious complications may arise. If the infection becomes severe, the bacteria may begin to leak from the appendix (known as a ruptured appendix), spreading infection through the peritoneal cavity (the specific area of the trunk in which the appendix is located), causing peritonitis. This condition may be life-threatening and requires a more invasive surgery, which includes a thorough cleaning of the peritoneal cavity. If an abscess forms instead of peritonitis, surgery is still necessary, but additional steps may be taken. An abscess that forms after a ruptured appendix is often treated by a surgeon inserting a tube through the abdominal wall and into the abscess in order to drain the pus. This tube is generally left in for about two weeks in conjunction with antibiotics to help clear the infection. Once the infection has subsided, the appendix will still very likely be removed.
If you are experiencing severe abdominal pain, seek medical attention for a proper diagnosis.