More than 700 kids are treated for appendicitis at CHOC Children’s every year. The appendectomy is one of the most commonly performed surgeries in the world. But just what is the appendix, and why does it send so many people to the emergency room with stomach pain?
Dr. Peter Yu, CHOC Children’s pediatric general and thoracic surgeon, explains everything you’ve ever wondered about the appendix, and more.
What does the appendix do?
The appendix is a small, finger-like projection that sticks out of the large intestine, located in the right side of the abdomen. It weighs about as much as an earthworm. In fact, its old-fashioned name is vermiform appendix, which means worm-like, Dr. Yu explains.
Everyone’s appendix is different. Some are long, some are short and stubby. But one thing they all have in common is that they are not necessary for a happy, healthy life.
“We are not sure if the appendix has a purpose. Some doctors don’t believe it does anything,” Dr. Yu says. “Some think it plays a role in the development of the immune system, and some believe it harbors ‘good bacteria’ that helps intestinal health. The bottom line, though, is that appendicitis is common, and patients do extremely well after removal of their appendix.”
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Bacteria naturally live in the large intestine and flow in and out of the appendix. Sometimes, the opening to the appendix gets blocked. Either constipation, a hard piece of stool called a “fecalith,” or enlarged lymph nodes cause these blockages.
The blockage traps the bacteria inside where it festers and multiplies. This leads to inflammation of the organ. If left untreated, the appendix can burst, releasing the infectious bacteria into the body.
Symptoms of a Burst or Inflamed Appendix
What are signs of appendicitis?
- sudden severe pain
- pain that starts near the belly button and moves to the lower abdomen on the right side
- fever, nausea or vomiting
To diagnose appendicitis, the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC Children’s Hospital will check your child’s blood for signs of an infection and will do an ultrasound of the abdomen. While many hospitals use a CT scan to diagnose appendicitis, CHOC radiologists and sonographers have the training and experience to make a diagnosis using ultrasound, in order to minimize your child’s exposure to radiation. If the ultrasound is inconclusive, the radiologist may conduct a CT scan.
How does the surgeon remove the appendix?
The surgeon will perform a procedure called a laparoscopic appendectomy to remove the appendix. A pediatric anesthesiologist will put your child to sleep using general anesthesia. The procedure takes about 30 minutes, though CHOC’s pediatric general surgeons can remove the organ in less than 10 minutes if needed.
During surgery, three tiny incisions are made on the abdomen. Carbon dioxide is blown into the belly to create a dome, giving the surgeon room to work. Small surgical tools are inserted in two of the incisions and a laparoscopic camera is inserted in the third. The appendix is identified, stapled or tied off, and removed.
The surgeon closes the incisions with surgical glue and dissolvable strips. In most cases, children will stay in the hospital for one day before the doctor discharges them. They should have no heavy activity or sports for two weeks after surgery and can usually return to school quickly, often even the next day.
What do you do with the appendix after you take it out?
Pathologists then inspect the removed appendix in the pathology department under a microscope. This inspection is important because it will confirm the diagnosis of appendicitis and rule out other conditions such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and carcinoid. Your surgeon will update you with the results during your follow-up appointment.
What if my appendix bursts?
“Fortunately, perforated appendicitis is less common than non-perforated appendicitis, but it can happen,” Dr. Yu says. “For some, the appendix can burst quickly, and for others it does not burst at all. There are many factors that a surgeon will consider before deciding whether to operate immediately, or to wait.”
If your surgeon decides to wait, then treatment can include antibiotics, placement of a drain in the abdomen, and nutrition through an IV if needed. Most patients improve in several days, after which the doctor discharges them. Your surgeon will then schedule your child for an interval appendectomy, which is removal of the appendix 8-12 weeks later. This gives the body time to recover from the infection and inflammation, making surgery safer and less complicated.
The CHOC Emergency Department, equipped to treat appendicitis 24 hours a day, with pediatric surgeons ready for all situations is mainly for kids and teens.
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- Appendicitis, sometimes mistaken by parents as a bad stomachache, can be difficult to diagnose in younger children, who can’t adequately describe pain.