I drew the unlucky straw recently of having appendicitis. There are few things in this world that are more uncomfortable than the pressure, bloating, nausea, and vomiting related to this condition. It landed me in the ER one night and the next morning I was ready for an appendectomy (surgery to remove the appendix). It went by in a blur. It went great! However, to my dismay in myself, there isn’t a great deal that I knew about the little organ attached to my intestine. Other than hearing the occasional story like mine, I’ve never bothered to become acquainted with my little Alex the Appendix (yes, I named him).
Now that I am sans Alex the Appendix, I went forth and ventured in to the science realm to see what I could find on these little guys. Obviously, we can live without this organ. People have been getting appendectomies for decades and have lived healthy lives. First to understand Alex the Appendix, we need to understand what it is and where it is found.
As described on Mayo Clinic’s website, the appendix is a finger-shaped little pouch that hangs from your colon on the right lower side of your abdomen. This little guy usually hangs around without much trouble and doesn’t seem to have an apparent use. What causes appendicitis (fancy term for an inflamed appendix) is that the lining of the appendix becomes blocked and since there is gut bacteria in the appendix, it becomes inflamed, irritated, and can eventually rupture if not taken care of. The appendix is unique to mammals and, actually, few mammals have an appendix at all! Many scientists have said that it is the “leftovers” of human evolution. Meaning that this little organ isn’t something to be too concerned about.
Flipping through peer-reviewed articles and other research suggests that we have been trying to figure out what the appendix does for quite some time. Most recently, an article published in The Journal of Theoretical Biology in 2007 (RR Bollinger, et al.) describes how they believe the appendix actually does have a function. They have described that the appendix is a “safe house” for commensal bacteria (bacteria that serve a purpose in our body or “good” bacteria). This paper proposes the idea that in the event a pathogen, or a “bad” bacteria/virus/etc, wipes out the good bacterial environment of the intestine that the appendix can re-inoculate, or reintroduce, the good bacteria back into the colon to help things go back to normal. Thus, helping us with our immune system as well.
Why would the appendix be a bad thing? Well it really isn’t until you experience appendicitis and a possible rupture may happen which can then lead to sepsis in the body (NOT GOOD) and could potentially be fatal. For now, the United States’ standard treatment care is to remove the appendix through a laparoscopic surgery. However, Europe will treat acute appendicitis with antibiotics. I was told during my ER visit that 20% of those cases treated with an antibiotic have recurring appendicitis. I was given a choice: antibiotics or surgery. I opted for surgery because no way did I want to relive this nightmare!
In the end, Alex the Appendix has been removed after a blissful 29 years together. While there is research to suggest that Alex the Appendix may have had a function, it hasn’t been confirmed by the science community. Some of you will live long happy years without your appendix giving you any issues and some of you will get to, unfortunately, experience the wrath of the largely misunderstood organ we know little about. RIP Alex the Appendix!