“The modern king has become a vermiform appendix – useless when quiet, when obtrusive in danger of removal”
Austin O’Malley (United Irish leader, 1760-1854)
The vermiform (wormlike) appendix is narrow pouch, approximately a 2-4” long, that hangs off the colon, or large intestine, in the lower right side of the abdomen. Charles Darwin, who popularized evolutionary theory of human development, consigned the appendix to the lowly status of vestigial organ – a body part left over from the process of natural selection, but having no continuing function. Beginning in the 1700s though, doctors recognized the troublesome tendency of the appendix to become inflamed and rupture – an often fatal condition called appendicitis. Long before anesthesia and antibiotics had been invented physicians attempted surgical removal of the organ and results were generally poor.
Fortunately for us, modern surgery makes appendicitis a far less fearsome condition. Recent medical research also suggests that Darwin was wrong and that textbooks may need to be rewritten, striking out the vestigial label. Clinical and research trends are converging, and it is possible that we may soon see more attempts at preserving the inflamed appendix rather than immediately removing it.
Who gets appendicitis?
No one knows why appendices become inflamed. They do so far more often in developed countries with high levels of sanitation than in undeveloped countries where severe diarrhea frequently purges the intestines. They act up more in younger people, below age 30 but no age is immune, and, at least in Western countries, seven out of every hundred people will develop appendicitis at some point in their lives.
What are the symptoms?
Appendicitis usually begins with pain, which is often mild and located near the belly button. Over the next few hours, as inflammation progresses, the pain tends to migrate and settle in the lower right side of the abdomen. Other symptoms may or may not occur and include nausea, vomiting, fever, and poor appetite. Diarrhea or constipation may occur, or there may be no change in bowel habits. As with many illnesses, the most important things to note are changes from normal patterns, and persistence of symptoms despite attempts to make them better. Since appendicitis typically develops over 4-48 hours, abdominal pain that lasts more than 4 hours is reason enough to seek a medical opinion.
Rupture often relieves pain – temporarily
Because the appendix is a blind pouch, its opening into the colon can become obstructed by the swelling that comes with inflammation. When this happens, pressure builds within the appendix and its wall may rupture. Paradoxically, rupture often relieves pain, at least for awhile. But because the colon and appendix house bacteria and rupture spills these “dirty” contents into the normally sterile abdomen, the patient soon becomes desperately ill with a condition called peritonitis. The coronation of King Edward VII of England was delayed by just such a series of events in 1902. His initial symptoms seemed to improve, and he planned to go through with the scheduled ceremony, but when he worsened, his doctors told him that if he continued as planned he would “go as a corpse.” Instead of being crowned, he underwent surgery and an abscess around the appendix was drained. The appendix was not removed because it had decompressed and sealed itself. The lucky monarch survived the surgery and was crowned later.
Diagnosis is not always easy
Appendicitis has proved a vexing condition to diagnose. The clinical history brings the patient to the doctor, who examines the abdomen for tenderness, measures temperature, and draws blood to see if the white blood cell count is elevated. There are many organs in the abdomen, and many possible causes of abdominal pain. No single test proves the presence or absence of appendicitis. Abdominal X-rays and ultrasound tests are sometimes done, but the CT scan has proven best for the diagnosis of appendicitis. But the definitive test is still a direct examination of the appendix at surgery, where removal is done even if the appendix is normal in appearance, as it is in about 10% cases. Since failing to discover and remove an inflamed appendix can result in far greater illness and possibly death, a 10% rate of misdiagnosis is considered very acceptable. Removal of a normal appendix also prevents confusion if future episodes of pain occur.
A role for antibiotics
Since CT scanning has been helpful in showing which appendices have ruptured and absolutely require surgery, some studies have been done to see whether treatment of early, uncomplicated appendicitis with antibiotics alone can be safely accomplished. Four randomized trials in England suggest that this is possible and will reduce the need for appendectomy in over 60% of cases of early appendicitis. Adopting this approach means that all patients with suspected appendicitis require the X-Ray exposure of abdominal CT scanning and that 20 % of patients will have recurrent symptoms within the year. In addition, if antibiotics do not quell the inflammation, the delay in getting to surgery can result in more complications. If the appendix is an unnecessary organ anyway, is it worth the expense and radiation exposure of CT scanning, attendant risks of delaying surgery, and the risk of recurrent appendicitis? Possibly.
Not so vestigial after all?
Until recently it has been assumed that there is no real role for the appendix. People seem to do very well without them. But researchers have always wondered why the appendix contains tissue that produces immune cells. It now appears that the immune cells are there to protect the bacteria that live in peace in the large intestine and play a crucial role in its health. When diarrhea has emptied the colon of its all its contents, the appendix still contains normal bacteria which, researchers think, repopulate the colon and bring it back to a healthy state. It is also possible that the immune cells in the appendix recognize new proteins that come in through the intestines, and teach the body’s immune system what to tolerate. In the case of the appendix, vestigial may only mean that we have not previously understood its function and if it can be preserved perhaps it should be.