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When A Burst Appendix Doesn’t Kill You: Big New Study Adds Data

An urgent laparoscopic appendectomy is performed aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, in this undated photo. (U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons)

An urgent laparoscopic appendectomy is performed aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, in this undated photo. (U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re a regular reader, you may have noticed that certain posts tend to dominate our most-popular list: on birth control and sex, on diet and exercise. Pretty predictable crowd-pleasers.

But one sleeper’s appearance on the list has repeatedly surprised us: “When A Burst Appendix Doesn’t Kill You.” Turns out, appendicitis is no lightning strike: It hits 300,000 Americans a year, one-tenth of adults over their lifetimes.

That 2012 post shared the story of Martha Little, who was then WBUR’s news director and who kept toiling away in the newsroom even though her appendix had burst — not because she was a hopeless workaholic, but because she was undergoing antibiotic treatment.

The post prompted dozens of edifying appendicitis stories in the comments section, and now a new study adds some helpful data. But first, the necessary background in the post, from Dr. Douglas Smink of Brigham and Women’s Hospital:

Twenty years ago, Dr. Smink said, surgeons would go in and operate on virtually all cases of appendicitis, whatever the level of inflammation. But research found that for a certain group of patients, it was better to wait. Now, even the “interval appendectomy” is becoming controversial; a newer school of thought holds that some patients may do best with antibiotics alone, no operation at all.

The problem right now, he said, is that there’s some data on the antibiotics-only strategy, but not enough to make clear which patients really need an appendectomy and which can get along without one. Patients who have a stone in the appendix, called an appendicolith, definitely need the organ removed, for example, but many other cases are not so clear cut. More research is needed, he said, to explore the effects of age, severity of illness and other factors on whether antibiotics-only treatment will work for a given patient.

Meanwhile, some studies also suggest that for many patients with uncomplicated appendicitis — the appendix still intact — antibiotic treatment alone may be enough as well.

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