Appendix -

Acute appendicitis

This article was last reviewed and updated on April 28, 2019.
by Madeline Fitzpatrick MD and Stephanie Reid, MD FRCPC

Quick facts:

  • Acute appendicitis is a non-cancerous medical condition caused by acute inflammation of the appendix.

  • It is a common condition that can occur at any age, but it usually affects adolescents and young adults.

The normal appendix

The appendix is a small finger-shaped organ that connects with your large bowel (colon) by a small opening. In most people, the appendix sits in the lower right abdomen just above your hip bone. The appendix and the large bowel have similar structure. Both the appendix and the large bowel are lined by cells called goblet cells. These cells produce mucin which helps food move smoothly through your large bowel. The appendix also contains cells that are a part of your immune system and these cells help to form a protective barrier between your body and the inside of the bowel. 

What is acute appendicitis?

Acute appendicitis is a non-cancerous (benign) medical condition caused by acute inflammation in the appendix. It can occur at any age group, but most commonly affects adolescents and young adults. 

In acute appendicitis the small opening to the appendix becomes blocked, often by piece of digested food called a fecalith. When the opening is blocked, bacteria which normally live in your colon, fill the appendix. Your immune system responds by sending acute inflammatory cells called neutrophils to surround and destroy the bacteria. The combination of bacteria and neutrophils produces pus. 

The inflammation seen in acute appendicitis starts on the inside of the appendix but quickly spreads to involve the wall and even the outside of the appendix. The appendix can also become swollen which blocks blood from getting in or out of the appendix. When this happens, parts of the appendix can start to die by a process called necrosis. If left untreated, a hole or perforation can develop in the appendix and the material inside the appendix can be released into the abdominal cavity. This release can cause an abscess to form around the appendix. 

Patients with acute appendicitis usually experience a gradual, constant pain that starts near the belly button and moves to the right lower side of the abdomen.  Other possible symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and fever. 

If your doctor suspects acute appendicitis they will order bloodwork and radiology imaging such as an ultrasound or CT scan. Your bloodwork will commonly show high numbers of immune cells called white blood cells (WBC). An ultrasound or CT scan will usually show an enlarged appendix.  Acute appendicitis is most commonly treated by removing the appendix. Your appendix will then be sent for examination by a pathologist. 

How do pathologists make this diagnosis?

When your pathologist examines your appendix under the microscope, they will look for several features in order to make the diagnosis of acute appendicitis:

1) Acute inflammation:  
Acute inflammation means that neutrophils were seen in the wall of the appendix. These neutrophils often combine with bacteria to form pus. Neutrophils are required to make the diagnosis of acute appendicitis. 

2) Peri-appendicitis:
Neutrophils seen on the outer surface of the appendix is called peri-appendicitis. This is often seen in acute appendicitis but it is not necessary to make the diagnosis.

3) Perforation
A perforation is a hole that opens up in your appendix as a result of severe inflammation and necrosis. Perforation can lead to the development of an abscess near the appendix. 

4) Margins
A margin is any tissue which must be cut by a surgeon so that the injured tissue can be removed from your body. The appendix is connected to the large bowel, and generally has two areas which must be cut to remove it from the body. The end that attaches to the large bowel and is in direct communication with it is called the proximal margin. The appendix has an area of fat that contains blood vessels and occasionally lymph nodes. This area must be cut to free the appendix and it is called the mesoappendix margin. In the setting of acute appendicitis, the inflammation can also extend into this area of surrounding fat, which pathologists describe as mesoappendix involvement.

5) Dysplasia 
Dysplasia is an abnormal pattern of growth that can turn into a cancer overtime. Your pathologist will carefully examine your tissue for any sign of dysplasia. However, it is very rare to find dysplasia in an appendix removed for acute appendicitis. 

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