Any abdominal pain, especially if it's persistent, extremely debilitating and occurs suddenly, is worrisome, as it may be a sign that you have appendicitis. But what exactly is this condition and why do people fall victim to it? Keep reading to learn more about appendicitis.
Appendicitis Definition: Basic Facts About This Condition
As its name implies, appendicitis is the inflammation of the appendix ("itis" means "inflammation" in Latin), the finger-shaped pouch that is attached to the colon.1 The appendix, also called vermiform appendix (which translates to "worm-like appendage"2), is small and thin, measuring only about 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters) long.3
When your appendix becomes blocked, usually because of a buildup of parasites, mucus or (most commonly) small pieces of feces, it can become inflamed. If this persists, the inflamed tissues become infected with bacteria, which can then invade the organ, infecting its walls (peritoneum) and lumen (cavity), leading pus to form and causing extreme pain.
If this is not addressed, the organ tissues then start to die because of lack of blood supply and eventually may lead to the appendix rupturing — a potentially life-threatening condition.4,5,6 Appendicitis can strike anyone of any age, although it's more common among individuals ages 10 to 20, and is rare among infants.7 It's a fairly common condition that occurs in at least 1 in every 13 people who will develop it at some point in their life.8
A 1990 study said that 250,000 appendectomies are performed in the U.S. alone per year. Rates are higher among Caucasians than other people, and are higher during the summer than winter months.9
What Does Appendicitis Feel Like?
The hallmark symptom of appendicitis is abdominal pain. It's described as a dull, cramping or aching pain throughout the abdomen that starts gradually. It typically begins near the bellybutton.
Once the swelling and inflammation worsens, however, the pain becomes more localized, constant and sharp, and is concentrated on the lower part of the abdomen. This occurs in a matter of hours.10 Walking, coughing, sneezing, taking deep breaths or pressing on the area can intensify the pain. Other symptoms, such as feeling sick, diarrhea, fever and loss of appetite, may set in as well.11
Appendicitis May Be Mistaken for Other Illnesses
Because of its location and proximity to other internal organs, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint appendicitis. In some cases, it may even be mistaken for other pelvic and abdominal illnesses. Diverticulitis, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), gallbladder disease and kidney disease are some examples of conditions that mimic appendicitis. In pregnant women, it may even be mistaken as the onset of labor.12
To confirm this condition, your doctor will conduct a physical examination and ask questions about your health history. Other tests such as urinalysis, white blood cell count, abdominal X-ray, ultrasonography, barium enema, laparoscopy and CT scan may also be used to check for appendicitis.31
Johns Hopkins Medicine states that an inflamed appendix can rupture within 48 to 72 hours after the symptoms have started. Therefore, if you or someone you know is exhibiting symptoms that may potentially indicate appendicitis, consult a physician immediately. This is a medical emergency that should not be ignored.14