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Health and wellness

Do we need an appendix? Why it could be useful, how to know if yours is inflamed, and history of the ‘useless’ organ

Doctors are starting to see links between the loss of the appendix and diseases such as chronic inflammatory bowel disease, though much about the organ remains a mystery

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2018, 11:35pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2018, 5:13am

We are all born with an appendix. But we can quite easily live, and function well, without it. Many of us have it surgically removed – as I have done.

For years, the appendix has been considered a purposeless organ left over from our evolutionary past without a useful function. Worse still, it can lead to appendicitis if it becomes inflamed and infected, and must be surgically removed.

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But is this 10cm (4 inch) organ actually worth our time?

It seems the answer is yes, according to research done over the past decade claiming the appendix does, indeed, serve a purpose, and that we should not be so hasty in discarding it.

Dr Paul Ng, a Hong Kong-based specialist in gastroenterology and hepatology, says that doctors are beginning to see links between the loss of the appendix and certain diseases. Most notable is chronic inflammatory bowel disease.

Ng believes the most likely reason for this is because “the appendix acts as a reservoir for good strains of bacteria in the colon – [it is] the Ark of Noah for good bacteria.”

The appendix acts as a reservoir for good strains of bacteria… it’s the Ark of Noah for good bacteria
Dr Paul Ng

He explains it can help replace any good bacteria that the colon loses over the course of a person’s life, which inhibits the overgrowth of bad bacteria.

Still, the appendix continues to be a mystery to modern-day doctors and scientists, having been a cause of fascination for many centuries.

The ancient Egyptians came across the organ when they were preparing dead bodies for funerals. They called it the “worm” of the bowel due to its small, tubelike shape, and to this day some medical texts refer to the organ as “vermiform” – “wormlike” in Latin.

Some claim that Leonardo da Vinci was the first to depict the appendix in Western medicine when he drew the human anatomy in 1492.

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His sketches were the result of 30 human corpse dissections that he performed himself – corpses he would obtain from grave robbers (a lucrative occupation back then) since human dissection was illegal unless you were a doctor.

His drawings depicted more than just bones and muscles – da Vinci made huge progress into understanding the intimate workings and functions of the human body.

The first official description of the appendix was delivered by Renaissance physician-anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi in 1521. And the first recorded removal of the organ was done in 1735 by Claudius Amyand on an 11-year-old boy.

The largest appendix ever chronicled is that of 72-year-old Croatian Safranco August – his 26cm (10.24 inch) appendix was removed during his autopsy and he now holds the Guinness World Record for “largest appendix removed”.

Appendicitis is an inflammation of the appendix and can be quite dangerous. In June 1902, the coronation of Britain’s King Edward VII was postponed because he got the illness, during a time when the mortality rate for appendicitis was around 26 per cent.

Edward initially resisted having an appendectomy until his surgeon, Frederick Treves, insisted he would most likely die if he did not go through with it before his coronation. King Edward recovered and was crowned on August 9, 1902.

How can you tell if you are in danger of appendicitis? Dr Niket Sonpal, assistant clinical professor at the Touro College of Medicine in New York, says the pain will begin around your belly button and move to the right side of your abdomen.

While there is no sure way to avoid appendix problems, the University of Maryland Medical Centre claims that eating more fruit, vegetables and fibre could help prevent appendicitis.

Today, appendicitis is still the most common stomach emergency found in hospitals. Around 7 per cent of people in Western countries are at a lifetime risk of having it removed, Ng says.

Early appendicitis can be treated with antibiotics, Ng says, but “most cases require removal by the time of detection”; removal at that stage is often imperative as failure to do so could result in a perforated appendix leading to peritonitis, which can be fatal.

However, doctors claim they are seeing the disease less. According to Sonpal, this could be due to an increase in fibre consumption.