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Don’t Ignore Belly Pain: How to Tell If It’s Appendicitis

By Devi Mukkai Krishnamurty, MBBS October 29, 2019 Posted in: Wellness

You’d never know you had an appendix – until it becomes inflamed. Then, this finger-sized organ announces itself with a sharp abdominal pain that typically starts on your right side. Don’t ignore it.  Appendicitis is the most common cause of sudden abdominal pain requiring surgery and a ruptured appendix can be life-threatening.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, around 7% of people develop appendicitis at some point. Here are some things you should know before this common condition strikes.

What Causes Appendicitis?

It occurs when the appendix, which is attached to your large intestine, gets blocked by stool, a foreign body or a tumor. An inflamed appendix can become swollen as it fills with pus.

What Does Appendicitis Feel Like?

Pain from an inflamed appendix usually starts in the lower right-hand side of the abdomen. It can also start at the navel (belly button) and radiate toward the lower right. Appendicitis pain can also come and go, but will gradually get worse and become constant. Pain can intensify with movement or when coughing, sneezing or taking deep breaths. Other symptoms include:

  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Low-grade fever (99°-102°F) and chills
  • Loss of appetite
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Stomach swelling
  • Inability to pass gas

Can Appendicitis Feel Like Gas Pains?

Symptoms of appendicitis can be similar to the pain caused by a buildup of gas. The difference is gas pains can be felt anywhere in the abdomen, and will go away with time. Pain from appendicitis gets worse over time and becomes constant.

How Hard is it to Diagnose Appendicitis?

It can be challenging because other conditions cause similar symptoms, including pelvic inflammatory disease, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, ulcers in the GI tract) and intestinal obstruction. To evaluate your symptoms, your doctor will perform a physical exam. A blood test will be done to check your white blood cell count. A urine test eliminates the possibility of urinary tract infection or kidney stone. An abdominal or pelvic ultrasound and/or CT scan may also be done.

Can Appendicitis be Cured Without Surgery?

Uncomplicated cases of appendicitis can sometimes be treated with antibiotics, though surgery is much more common. Immediate surgery is required if the appendix is ruptured or perforated.

What Does the Appendix Do?

Scientists don’t know exactly. Some theorize that we’ve evolved beyond whatever purpose it had in our caveman days. Others think that it stores good bacteria for the gut. On this they agree: it’s one of few organs you can live without.

If you have more questions, reach out to your primary care provider.

Devi Mukkai Krishnamurty, MBBS
Devi Mukkai Krishnamurty, MBBS

Devi Mukkai Krishnamurty, MBBS is a board-certified Colorectal Surgeon at CHI Health.

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