You have most likely heard of your appendix, but that doesn’t mean you understand its function. This tube-shaped sac is attached to your large intestine. In addition to humans, a few other mammals like apes and koalas also have them. The official name of the appendix is “vermiform appendix” because of its thin and worm-like shape. For many years, experts dismissed the appendix as a remnant of evolution that is no longer necessary. Recently, however, medical researchers have begun to answer the question “what does the appendix do” and found there are numerous answers.
What Does the Appendix Do?
1. Reserves Good Bacteria for Digestive Health
One of the most important roles of the appendix is producing and protecting beneficial probiotic bacteria colonies within the digestive system. Researchers know that our digestive systems contain bacteria which we need in order to properly digest food. If we get sick, the important bacteria may be killed off. When this happens, the appendix acts as a reserve for storing the good bacteria. Once our immune system removes the disease, these bacteria can emerge to recolonize our guts.
Based on the current evidence, experts believe that the answer to “what does the appendix do” could be store beneficial gut flora. The appendix can store the good bacteria for backups in case of illness. This is supported by research that shows that people without an appendix can be as much as four times as likely to suffer from a recurrent form of Clostridium difficile colitis, which is when the large intestine is irritated by spore-forming bacteria. This condition tends to occur if your body doesn’t have enough gut flora, which can help explain the appendix’s role.
2. Plays a Role in the Development of Immune System
In addition to helping protect beneficial flora in the gut, the appendix may also help our immune system develop. Research shows that lymphoid tissue builds up within the appendix following birth. The appendix also helps B lymphocytes mature and assists with the production of antibodies. It even produces molecules which help lymphocytes move throughout the body.
Notes for Appendix Issues
Although the appendix is an important organ in our bodies, it can still lead to appendicitis, which is common and serious and involves inflammation and the possibility of rupture.
It is possible that the small number of germs in our modern society leads to overreactions of the immune system. This can lead to attacks on good bacteria within the appendix. Some experts theorize that this type of overreaction may cause the inflammation of appendicitis or intestinal obstruction of acute appendicitis.
Medical Conditions Concerning the Appendix
Now that you know the answer to “what does the appendix do”, it is time to learn more about the possible problems. Appendicitis is when the appendix becomes inflamed. This medical emergency almost always requires immediate surgery so the appendix can be removed. If it is untreated, the inflamed appendix will perforate or burst, causing infectious materials to spill into a person’s abdominal cavity. This in turn causes peritonitis, a type of serious inflammation affecting the peritoneum, the lining of the abdominal cavity. It can be fetal if not treated with antibiotics right away.
- Symptoms of Appendicitis
Appendicitis is typically identified by a dull pain close to the upper abdomen or naval that feels sharper as it goes towards the lower right portion of the abdomen. After this initial sign, it can also cause nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, high fevers, the lack of ability to pass gas, and abdominal swelling.
About half of the time, appendicitis will also include a sharp or dull pain within the lower or upper abdomen, rectum, or back. It is also linked to diarrhea or constipation, severe cramps, and painful urination around half the time.
- Diagnosis of Appendicitis
Appendicitis is hard to diagnose because of the vague symptoms that are similar to other issues. Most doctors confirm the diagnosis via CT scans, ultrasounds, blood tests to check for a response to fighting an infection, a rectal exam, a urine test to eliminate the possibility of urinary tract infections, and/or abdominal exams to check for inflammation.
- How to Treat Appendicitis
The standard treatment is an appendectomy, or the removal of the appendix. Most doctors would rather remove the appendix quickly if they suspect appendicitis as this prevents the possibility of rupture. In cases where the appendix created an abscess, there may be two procedures. The first will drain this abscess of fluid and pus, and the second will be the appendectomy. Some research shows that acute appendicitis can sometimes be treated with antibiotics.
2. Appendix Cancer
It is also possible to develop appendix cancer. This occurs if the cells within your appendix become abnormal, multiplying without control. They will form a tumor or growth of tissue which may be benign or cancerous. Cancerous tumors are malignant and can grow, spreading to other body parts. Appendix cancer is also known as appendiceal cancer. There are also various types of tumors that can grow in the appendix.
- Symptoms of Appendix Cancer
Some people who have appendix cancer won’t show any symptoms. It is possible, however, to experience appendicitis, bloating, abdominal or pelvic pain, ascites (fluid within the abdomen), changes in the function of bowels, increase in waistline (possibly including navel protrusion), and infertility.
- Diagnosis of Appendix Cancer
Biopsies are the most common test used to diagnose appendix cancer. This involves removing a small piece of tissue and examining it. Doctors also rely on computed tomography (CAT or CT) scans, MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging), ultrasounds, and Octreo Scans (radionuclide scanning) in addition to a physical examination.
- How to Treat Appendix Cancer
The treatment for appendix cancer varies based on the type of cancer, whether it is spread, where it has spread, how far along it is, the patient’s health condition, and other factors. There are several surgical treatments that remove the tumor as well as some of the surrounding healthy tumor. Appendectomies remove the appendix; hemicolectomies remove a part of the colon that is next to your appendix. Debulking surgery is typically used for later-stage cancer. It involves removing the largest possible quantity of the tumor’s bulk. Sometimes, treatment will also include removing the peritoneum. Treatment will often combine those surgeries with local or systemic chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.