How Your Appendix Works

Does the appendix have a function?


The appendix -- an organ barely 4 inches long -- causes much debate among medical professionals. In fact, doctors have trouble deciding if the appendix has any use to the body at all. While everyone agrees that the appendix can be removed without causing any adverse health consequences to the patient, some physicians and researchers believe that the appendix does serve a function as part of the immune system. Others feel that the appendix is a vestigial organ, a remainder from the time when humans regularly dined on tree bark and needed an additional organ to break down the roughage. Along with the disagreement over the true function of the appendix, there is no consensus if humans will always have this organ. Some doctors feel that the evolution of the human body will lead to the demise of the appendix, while others believe that the appendix will remain in the body, continuing to do whatever it does.

Prophylactic appendectomies for astronauts? How about for international travelers?

If the appendix has no purpose, yet is potentially subject to all of these dangerous -- even life threatening -- conditions, then why can't we simply have a doctor remove our appendix as a preventative procedure?

With no clear determination of what the appendix does, there's no agreement on whether prophylactic appendectomies -- appendectomies performed to avoid possible future medical emergencies -- are medically appropriate. For years rumors have circulated that astronauts had their appendixes removed before space travel to avoid a potential medical emergency while in orbit. For similar (yet more earthbound) reasons, many people wonder whether they should have theirs removed before boarding an international flight. There's no truth to the rumor about astronauts, and most physicians do not recommend preventative appendectomies for world travelers either. Seven percent of the general population will have their appendix removed at some point in their lives. Given these low odds, and the fact that most insurance plans will not pay for a prophylactic appendectomy, they are generally not considered for the healthy traveler.

Prophylactic appendectomies are occasionally performed if the patient is undergoing other abdominal surgery. For instance, if the patient has an ovarian cyst removed or a hysterectomy, the doctor may perform an appendectomy at the same time. The reason for this is twofold. If the patient has a history of abdominal pain, such as with endometriosis, that pain can mask the symptoms of appendicitis. Additionally, recovering from abdominal surgery isn't pleasant, and by removing the appendix at the same time as conducting other surgery, you minimize the likelihood of additional surgery.

If you found this article interesting, you may want to read some of the related HowStuffWorks articles listed below. You'll also find a few links that can provide you with more information about the appendix.

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  • Burney, Richard E. MD. "Acute Appendicitis." University of Michigan Health System. October 2005.
  • Cunha, John P. DO. Durham, Britt A. MD. "Appendicitis Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment Information." 07/03/2007
  • Katz, Joshua MD. "Appendicitis." National Digestive Diseases Information Clearing House. June 2004.
  • Katz, Michael S. MD. Tucker, Jeffrey R. MD. Glick, Philip MD, MBA. "Appendicitis." September 15, 2006.
  • Lee, Dennis MD. Marks, Jay W. MD. "Appendicitis information (symptoms, diagnosis, treatment)." MedicineNet. 12/07/2007.
  • Van Voorhees, Benjamin W. MD, MPH. "Point Tenderness - Abdomen." MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. 05/17/2007.