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What Does the Appendix Do?

by admin on January 4, 2010

Your appendix is located in your lower right abdomen, attached to the large intestine. Just past the ileocecal valve; the gateway between the small and large intestine, is the cecum; a bulbous mass located at the bottom of the ascending colon. The appendix is a vermiform (worm shaped) organ that hangs off the end of your cecum. In most people it is about 10 cm long. At one time; the appendix was thought to be a vestigial organ; left over from the days of eating large amounts of plant matter, we now understand the appendix probably plays an important role in our immune system due to its rich supply of lymphocytes; better known as B-cells, T-cells and natural killer cells.

There are many different types of T-cells, but one of the best known to us are memory T-cells; as their name suggests, they are responsible for our immunity to certain diseases through vaccinations. B-cells make the antibodies that fight  antigens (foreign cells). In short, T-cells have the recipe and B-cells are the cooks. Natural killer cells attack viruses and tumor cells.

Although, current knowledge of the role of our appendix is based on well educated guesses, here is what we know:: our appendix may have played a role in helping our distant relatives digest plant matter; a mainstay of their ancient diet; by storing additional digestive enzymes. Scientists base this knowledge on the comparison between the human appendix and the koala bear appendix. The appendix is rich in lymphocytes as stated above. Finally, the appendix may play an important role in repopulating natural bacteria to our large intestine that are wiped out by diarrhea and other similar illnesses.

Why do so many people undergo an appendectomy?

Partially digested food and foreign antigens can become stuck in the appendix because of its remote location. Your appendix is a closed tube, making it difficult for your body to clear away debris, should any infection causing bacteria or other matter become stuck. It used to be routine practice to remove the appendix during any abdominal surgery due to its propensity for becoming infected and the deadly consequences that could result from this infection. If an infection continues without treatment, your appendix could rupture, spewing out bacteria laden materials into your peritoneum and abdominal cavity, possibly resulting in sepsis and death. Rather than take this risk, doctors used to routinely remove the appendix, but current medical practices include giving IV antibiotics to treat appendicitis (“citis” means inflammed), that can lead to a full recovery. It is worth noting, however, that most people don’t notice any difference in their body’s immune functioning after having their appendix removed.

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