Friday, September 15, 2006
Tales From the Right Lower Quadrant: appendixes I have known. Part one.
Dr. Dunphy (J. Englebert "Bert" Dunphy, Chairman of the Surgery Dep't, UCSF, RIP) used to tell us: when evaluating abdominal pain, never have appendicitis lower than second on your differential. It's a good thought to keep close: whereas classic appendicitis is most often a fairly straightforward bedside-makeable diagnosis, it can do pretty strange things, and be a major diagnostic challenge. Not to mention being the cause of a few good stories.
First, some background: the appendix -- its spanking name is appendix vermiformis, which means wormlike thingy -- looks, in its normal state, like a little worm, 'bout half a night-crawler. Doing nothing that any (reliable) research has ever identified, it hangs down from the cecum like a sad little rat-tail in the right lower part of your belly. Most people never have any reason to know it's there. When they do, in by far the most of cases, it's because it becomes infected: infection of the appendix is called appendicitis.
Your mom may have told you if you swallow cherry pits you'll get appendicits. I know your mom: she wasn't wrong often, but this is one of the times. That rumor may have gotten started because of an item called an appendicolith, which means a stone in the appendix. ("I gave my love a cherry, without a stone... I gave my love a chicken...." etc.) The other, less impressive, name is fecalith. What it is is a piece of stool that got stuck in there and become so inspissated it's like stone. This is one presumed cause of appendicitis; it also can lead to a rare situation of recurring appendicits (more, later.) But the fact is, in most cases there's not an identifiable reason when it happens; and in the vast majority of instances, it's a one-time deal. (I always made a point of telling kids with appendicitis, and their parents, that it's no one's fault: it's nothing they ate, nothing they did. It just happened.)
The gut doesn't have a large trick-bag; meaning, it only has a few ways it can respond to illness, and it doesn't have the sort of pain nerves that allow localization. If I pinch you on your skin, you'd know exactly where, with your eyes closed. Pinch a spot on your intestines, and you'd likely only muster a "yuck." So the early signs of infection or inflammation of one part of the gut have a way of sounding like and feeling like those in another. When appendicitis starts, therefore, it's usually with a vague yucky feeling, loss of appetite, nausea. Pain is hard to put a finger on, at first. It's only when the inflammation progresses to the point that it involves surrounding tissues -- specifically, the parietal peritoneum, which has LOTS of nerves, of the kind the brain can pinpoint -- that the pain begins to localize where the appendix is (or is supposed to "is"), in the right lower abdomen. Typically it takes a half a day or a day for the symptoms to localize. Appendicitis can happen at any age, but is significantly more common in kids (around five years old to teenage, and there's another spike of frequency in us senior citizens.) Luckily, it's rare in babies, which is good: it's hard as hell to diagnose early in them.
As the infection evolves, the appendix gets red and swollen, going from worm-size to -- sometimes -- finger-size. And left to its own devices, the infection eventually rots away all or part of the appendix (gangrenous appendicitis) and it falls apart, allowing the pus inside to leak out. Ruptured appendix, as you've no doubt heard. When that happens, things generally go in one of two ways, depending on several factors, including the location of the tip-end of the appendix: either pus flows all over the place, causing generalized peritonitis, or it gets walled off into an abscess. In the former case, you'll get sick as hell; in the latter, you won't feel great but it's possible to limp along without disaster.
The cecum is always the starting point, anatomically, of the appendix, and the cecum is nearly always situated in the right lower part of the abdomen. But the tip of the appendix can be in a lot of places, depending on its length, and resting place. Some far ends of the thing are way down in the pelvis; some are across to the left, or aiming north. Quite a few take off from the cecum and run backwards behind it, and can go as high as the liver in that "retro cecal" orientation. Major bummer for the victim and his/her surgeon.
OK. So now, assuming you didn't already, you have a background for a few stories I'm going to tell.