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What is the appendix? What does it do? How do I know if I have appendicitis? (Part 1)

Updated on March 2, 2013

The Appendix

With the appendix being the cause of nearly 80,000 pediatric surgeries annually, and the target of removal in approximately 280,000 people annually, it only makes sense for you to be informed of what an appendix is, the function of the appendix in your body, and also the most common problems with the appendix. Out of those 80,000 pediatrics, 1/3 of them suffer a ruptured appendix, which is potentially fatal.

I love anatomy and physiology and knowing the different functions of the body systems. In my opinion, the more knowledge a person has about their body, the better they can take care of themselves or better recognize when something is wrong with your children, or other family members. Any knowledge I have is due to nursing, and also from researching. One of my favorite parts about being a nurse is the patient teaching. In order to do this effectively, you have to know what you're talking about. I like breaking down medical terms to make it more understandable. Later in this hub, I'll share my experience as a parent about the appendix, and how my knowing a little about it may have saved my son's life.

Appendix & McBurney's Point

Appendix attached to bottom of cecum.
Appendix attached to bottom of cecum.
Diagram of McBurney's Point
Diagram of McBurney's Point

What is the Appendix and where is it at?

APPENDIX: (simple definition) something attached as if by being hung on; appendage.

Anatomically speaking, the appendix is the "worm shaped" structure of the digestive system that is attached to a pouch known as the cecum, which is located where the Ileum meets the large intestine. Referring to it externally, it is located in your Lower Right Abdomen, above your pubic bone. This area is known as McBurney's Point. The average length of a healthy appendix is around 10 cm, but can range from 2 to 20 cm, and diameter measures approx 7 to 8 mm. The longest ever removed was 26cm from a patient in Croatia.

For years the appendix was thought to be a useless "leftover" of evolution, as were the tonsils. They called these Vestigial organs, meaning they were a trace or mark left by something....a footprint if you will. The fact that there are little to no adverse reactions in patients who have had their appendix removed seemed to support this theory. Nobody knew why it was there, or what function it served, if any.

Appendix linked to several body systems

Based on what I've read, there are several body systems that the appendix is actually connected to because of the functions it has been found to have:

  • Digestive System
  • Lymphatic System
  • Endocrine System
  • Metric System....okay, so maybe not that system. Just seeing if you're paying attention.

What Is the function(s) of the appendix.

Despite the first beliefs that it was just a waste of tissue basically, as years went on, and of course technology developed, scientists were able to look into this more. Now days, the appendix is most definitely not considered "uselss".

The Appendix is a Tough Infection Fighter

Especially in people who have had exposure to some types of radiation. Radiation drastically lowers the immune system of an individual receiving therapy because of the decreased white blood cells.

It was discovered that the inside of the appendix is abundant in lymphoid cells, which are vital in the production of white blood cells, aka Infection Fighting Cells. If you read about Body systems, you will see that the Lymphatic System is a major part of your body's immunity. This caused researchers to wonder now if the appendix isn't also a part of the immune system as well as the digestive.

A Professor of physiology at Oklahoma State University, Loren G. Martin, has found reason to to claim that the appendix actually has functions in adults as well as fetuses. In an adult, functioning as a lymphatic organ and in fetuses it is thought to contribute to "biological control (homeostatic) mechanisms" due to the fact that endocrine cells have been found in the appendix of 11 week fetusus.

Zanid theorizes the appendix plays a role in both manufacturing hormones in fetal development, as well as "training" immune system by exposing the body to antigens which in turn causes the body to make antibodies to fight them.

Vacation Home of the Good Bacteria

  1. Another function of the appendix is thought to be that of a "safe harbor" if you will for bacteria, the good kind. Researchers believe the appendix actually stores, and therefore protects, a vast amount of the good bacteria that is necessary in the function of the large intestine. (Dr. Bill Parker) This theory is supported from the massive amount of bacteria that populates the digestive system and the actual location of the appendix, which is just below the normal one-way flow of food and germs in the large intestine. Take a look at the diagram explaining an example of this.
  1. Depicts a normal, healthy large intestine
  2. Shows an infection setting in
  3. The infection causes diarrhea, which in turn clears the large intestine of the good bacteria that is needed.
  4. This somehow signals the release of the stored bacteria from the appendix into the large intestine
  5. Recovery process restores the natural balance of normal flora in the colon.

Bacterial reservoir function of the appendix
Bacterial reservoir function of the appendix


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