10 Symptoms of Appendicitis to Watch Out For
Killer cramps? It could be appendicitis… Nearly 1 in 15 of us will fall victim to an attack on our appendix at some point in our lives. And while appendicitis occurs most commonly between the ages of 10 and 30, the fact is this potentially life-threatening condition has the ability to strike at almost any age.
With many of its symptoms similar to those of the flu and various other ‘not-so-serious’ complaints, appendicitis can be a tricky illness to diagnose. But if left untreated, it can lead to a ruptured appendix and a whole lot of hurt from some pretty serious infections.
When Friend Becomes Foe
In the human body, where even the smallest cell has the most incredibly important job to do, it’s unusual to find something as pointless as the appendix. Research shows that this tiny, finger-shaped organ in the intestinal area seems to serve no purpose whatsoever, and is little more than an evolutionary leftover.
But some scientists believe that when we’re very young, our appendix may help our immune system fight off infection. So it’s rather ironic that, as we get older, not only does this minor appendage stop helping to ward off disease, it can actually end up becoming a major cause of it. Appendicitis is the most common of all medical emergencies, and it turns out to be fatal in many cases.
So What’s the Big Emergency?
The tube-like sac that is your appendix is not only attached to your colon, it actually opens directly into the lower end of your large intestine. This means that when an inflamed appendix leaks or bursts, fecal matter and all manner of other nasty stuff fans out into the surrounding area, causing infection throughout the abdominal cavity.
This advanced condition is known as peritonitis, and it’s extremely dangerous. When it happens, the appendix has to be surgically removed, and the abdomen cleaned out and treated with antibiotics. A leaky appendix can also cause an abscess, or tiny pocket of infection, to form in the abdomen. This inflamed region will need to be drained quickly to prevent further spread of the infection, and the renegade appendix will, once again, have to be removed.
Because it’s pretty much guaranteed that, if left alone, an infected appendix will eventually either leak or burst, removing it before this can happen generally results in far fewer potentially life-threatening complications. And that’s why it’s crucial that you never turn a blind eye to what could be a possible appendicitis attack.
Lower Abdominal Pain
First and foremost, appendicitis tends to cause intense abdominal pain. More specifically, it causes quite sudden pain in the lower right abdominal area. The reason for the pain is the fact that your appendix has become infected, but the reason for the infection isn’t always so straightforward. Most of the time, it involves a blockage of some sort.
Regardless of the cause however, once bacteria have taken over the infected area and begun to generate quantities of pus, the tiny and virtually useless appendix will suddenly make its presence known in a very big way by becoming swollen, inflamed and intensely painful. Sometimes appendicitis pain will show up around your belly button first, before migrating to your lower abdomen, so don’t be fooled by this sleight-of-hand.
Pain That Keeps Getting Worse
Typically with appendicitis, the pain will keep getting worse instead of better as the infection continues to ramp up. Watch for increasing abdominal pain that’s bad enough to wake you from your sleep, or that gets worse when you walk, cough or make sudden, jerky movements.
The bacteria involved in appendicitis have a tendency to multiply rapidly, and quite often, if surgery to remove the appendix (known as an appendectomy) doesn’t happen quickly enough, the infected organ will burst or rupture, spreading the infection even further afield. Many appendixes rupture within 48 to 72 hours of the onset of symptoms.
Low-grade Fever and Chills
Because it’s an infection, appendicitis is often accompanied by chills and a low-grade fever — anywhere from 99-103oF — that can get progressively worse as your body tries to fight off the invading bacteria. Unfortunately though, this is one illness where your body simply can’t win the battle on its own, and medical intervention is vital in order to prevent the appendix from rupturing, and making the situation worse.
It can be tempting to write off many of the accompanying symptoms of appendicitis as a simple case of not feeling well. Maybe you think you’ve got a touch of the flu, or that something you ate didn’t agree with you. But it’s important to keep your symptoms as a whole in mind, especially if they’re linked to any kind of abdominal pain.
Loss of Appetite
With such a bad bellyache, you’re unlikely to feel much desire to sit down to a four-course meal. Just the same, if you normally have a pretty healthy appetite and you find it’s severely dropped off, you should view it as just one more possible sign of an appendicitis attack.
Nausea and Vomiting
Take the loss of appetite one step further, and you may find you’ve progressed to a point where you’re feeling mildly nauseous, or even vomiting. Considered on its own merits, this symptom could have you thinking you simply ate a bad oyster the night before, and it that it might be time to switch restaurants. But don’t get sidetracked by the fact that your stomach is only mildly upset – always keep the bigger possibility in sight.
Bloating and Gas
Some of us deal with gas and bloating on a regular basis, so this is probably no big deal, right? Possibly. But when it’s one of a handful of appendicitis-like symptoms, chances are good that it might not be just your usual, run-of-the-mill bloating. When there’s trouble brewing in your appendix, you may even find you have trouble passing gas, and this can lead to greater pain and cramping. Play it safe and get it checked out.
Swelling of the Abdomen
No surprise here. With everything that’s going in inside it, a swollen abdomen is a very common side-effect of the onset of appendicitis.
Diarrhea or Constipation
Diarrhea OR constipation? That’s right. In typically deceptive, appendix-like fashion, this is just one more way that a potential appendicitis attack can keep you guessing. But whether you’re experiencing loose stools or difficult bowel movements, neither of these conditions is considered normal in everyday life; and either can be cause for concern when there’s extreme abdominal pain involved.
You should also be aware that regardless of whether you’re suffering from nausea, bloating, diarrhea or constipation, when it comes to a possible appendicitis attack, it’s critical that you avoid over-the-counter medications. The use of laxatives, antacids, or even a simple heating pad with an inflamed appendix can cause it to rupture.
Not to be confused with constipation, tenesmus is the physical state of feeling the need to move your bowels, even though your bowels are most certainly empty. In the case of appendicitis, tenesmus usually involves rectal pain and cramping as you strain to pass a non-existent stool. Goes without saying this is not a lot of fun, especially when you consider all the other sources of pain and cramping associated with a potential appendicitis attack.
One of the first things a medical professional is likely to do to confirm appendicitis, is to apply pressure to your painful abdomen to check for rebound tenderness. The unique feature of rebound tenderness is that, instead of causing more pain when pressure is applied, it actually creates greater discomfort when the pressure is released. This backwards form of sensitivity in the abdomen is a pretty good signal that the peritoneum, the membrane lining the abdominal cavity, has become inflamed.
Not every case of appendicitis will involve every symptom described here, but these are the classics. Even the crushing abdominal pain that categorizes most appendicitis attacks doesn’t happen in every case, which makes it even more important that you pay attention to other possible signs that something is wrong. If you ever think you may be experiencing an appendicitis attack, be vigilant, don’t take any symptom — no matter how mild — for granted, and seek medical attention right away.