Of all the organs inside the human body, the most misunderstood one is probably the appendix. It’s often described to be “useless” and “unimportant,” and is thought to be a remnant of human evolution. Charles Darwin concluded that it may be an organ that cavemen used to digest tree bark and other fibrous plant materials.1
Today, when talk of the appendix arises, most people tend to think of it as a “good for nothing” body part that may potentially lead to painful inflammation. But there’s actually more to this organ than what most people think.
What Is the Appendix and What Does It Do?
The appendix is found in the lower right portion of your abdomen. This slimy, finger-shaped organ is attached to the cecum, a small pouch that’s part of the intestines (the cecum is considered to be the beginning of the large intestine) and is part of your gastrointestinal tract.2
The appendix is thin and small, measuring only 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters) long.3 For a long time, the appendix has been regarded as an organ that does not serve any function, and that removing it will not harm a person. But now, research has made it clear that it may be useful after all.
According to scientists in France and Australia, the appendix may actually play a role in your immunity, as it has an important function for your gut bacteria.
Published in Nature Immunology, their study showed that the appendix — with the help of white blood cells known as innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) — works as a reservoir for “good bacteria,” which are essential for good gut health and healing from infections.4
When certain diseases eliminate the healthy bacteria in your gut, the appendix works as a “safe house” for some of these probiotics.
Once the body’s immune system has gotten rid of the infection, the bacteria will emerge from the biofilm of the appendix, and then recolonize your gut, bringing it back to its healthy state.5 According to Gabrielle Belz, a professor at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute:
"We've found that ILCs may help the appendix to potentially reseed 'good' bacteria within the microbiome — or community of bacteria — in the body. A balanced microbiome is essential for recovery from bacterial threats to gut health, such as food poisoning."6
The researchers say that these findings should make people rethink whether the appendix is “irrelevant” to their health.
Real Trouble Arises When Inflammation Sets In
Many people live long and healthy lives without having to worry about their appendix. However, in some cases, this organ becomes susceptible to infection and obstruction — paving the way for appendicitis.
To put it simply, appendicitis is an inflammation in the appendix, usually due to pathogenic bacteria. Once these bad bacteria multiply rapidly, it can lead to swelling and formation of pus in the organ.7 It is a fairly common condition and, in the U.S., it is the most common cause of abdominal pain leading to surgery.8 Physicians perform at least over 250,000 appendectomies (removal of the appendix) in the country every year.9
Appendicitis Facts: Everything You Need to Know About This Ailment
Appendicitis is a very serious health concern, which is why it’s crucial to be familiar with this painful condition. If you suspect that you or someone you know is suffering from it, seek medical attention immediately. If not addressed, the swollen appendix can rupture and may be fatal.