Tonsils the sequel, what on earth is the Appendix for?
Posted on 24th January 2024 at 09:34
Since talking about Tonsils a couple of weeks ago and whether we really do need them – click here if you missed it – several Clients have asked the same follow up question. What on earth is the Appendix for?
So, not being ones to miss a hint (!), we’re re posting an updated blog post we did a few years ago about the Appendix. Not only does it provide several intriguing answers to that particular question, but also dispels some very popular misconceptions / old wives’ tales in the process (!), many of which we’re sure you’ve heard before…
Ready? Then here we go.
Despite its small size, the Appendix only tends to be mentioned in hushed tones accompanied with words of dread.
Why is this?
Well, probably, because the only time we spare it a thought is when there’s a problem.
For good reason, Appendicitis is one of the most feared medical emergencies, due to its rapid onset and levels of pain involved. Added to this, there’s always the worry that it will burst – known as Peritonitis – although this is something of an old wives’ tale.
The size of a little finger, the Appendix is found on the lower right hand side of the Abdomen, where the Small Intestine meets the Large Intestine.
Which takes us neatly on to the million dollar question. What on earth does it do?
Over the years there have been many – often highly imaginative – theories on this. The perennial favourite is that it’s left over from when humans had a tail. Sadly, it isn’t!
It now appears that the Appendix has an important immune function.
While it may not be immediately obvious, the Digestive System acts as one of the first lines of defence for our bodies. Just think how easy it is for all sorts of “undesireables” to hitch a ride on all the things we eat or drink each day. And, once there, what a good home our Digestive System then provides. Warm, dark and well protected, with a plentiful food supply. Oh and plenty of opportunities to easily travel around the body. We bet you’ve never thought of it in those terms before!
In addition, it’s recently been found that the Appendix also acts as a storehouse for so called “good bacteria” needed to help digest our food, as well as maintain a healthy gut. Not only is this important for the “day to day” functioning of our Digestive System, but also ensures it can quickly get back to normal after any digestive related incidents, such as food poisoning, sickness or diarrhoea. In addition, it may also help to mitigate against the impact of various medications on the “good bacteria” found in the Digestive System, with antibiotics being the best known.
And while we’re talking about what the Appendix does, let’s quickly dispel a couple of very common misconceptions about it.
The first, is that any pips found in the food you eat – apples, grapes, oranges and the like – can get stuck there, so triggering Appendicitis. Even worse, they can even start growing...
The second is that chewing gum – or bubble gum – can also end up there with similarly dire results.
Thankfully they’re both untrue. What a relief!
So why does Appendicitis happen?
Despite being such a small organ, the Appendix can easily become blocked; whether by hardened faeces, mucus or the aftermath of an immune response. It then starts to swell leading to an infection, fever and, not surprisingly, acute pain. There may also be diarrhoea, constipation, nausea or sickness.
And let’s quickly dispel another old wives’ tale. There’s no danger the Appendix will burst like balloon, which is the picture most people seem to have in their minds. Instead, it becomes so inflamed and swollen that two things can then happen.
The first is that its contents start to leak into surrounding tissues, so allowing any infection to spread to them.
The second, which can then happen alongside this, is that pressure is put on surrounding organs, which then restricts the blood supply to them. Without a blood supply they can then start to die, with the risk of infection spreading on to other tissues. Not surprisingly, this is incredibly painful, so it’s very rare for things to get to this stage.
Let’s finish with some Appendix related trivia:
Very few animals actually have an Appendix. Humans, along with apes and other primates, have them as do rabbits, wombats and opossums. And why this is, no one knows!
The Appendix starts to develop early in pregnancy, around the 5th week, and develops rapidly in early life. It is largest – relatively – during childhood and then diminishes in size during adulthood. This seems to confirm its importance as part of the Immune System and in helping to establish a healthy Digestive System.
Leonardo da Vinci is thought to have been the first person to include an Appendix in his anatomical drawings, all the way back in 1492.
And, finally, the Ancient Egyptians named it the “worm of the bowel” as they came across it while mummifying bodies.
So, there you have it – and, probably, more than enough Appendix related information / trivia for one post (!).
As always, the choice is yours.
Picture by unknown author
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