An appendix is a good thing

No not a book appendix, silly. The one in your belly. It's been dissed all these years—everyone says it's superfluous, has no function, tits on a boar, that kinda thing—but it's actually useful, it turns out. And not just the way Alfred Sherwood Romer and Thomas S. Parsons suggest in The Vertebrate Body (1986), p. 389: "Its major importance would appear to be financial support of the surgical profession.”

Docs at Duke University Medical School published a report this week that say it produces and protects good germs for your gut.

But it can kill ya. In fact, over 300,000 were hospitalized in the U.S. with appendicitis in 2005, and about 300 to 400 Americans die of appendicitis each year.

Remember, there are more bacteria cells than human cells in your body—10 to 1, actually. (Ewww.) But what happens if the bacteria in your intestines die or are, to use a delicate word, purged? Diseases such as cholera or amoebic dysentery clear your guts of useful bacteria (oh yeah, been there done that, from both ends). The appendix's job is to reboot your digestive system. Kinda like rebooting your computer from one of those keychain memory sticks.

Your appendix, it turns out, is a safe cul-de-sac for bacteria, located just below the normal one-way flow of food and germs in the large intestine. Today, if your gut bacteria die, it can usually be repopulated easily with germs they pick up from other people. (Wash your hands!) But before modern-day dense populations, and during regional cholera epidemics, it wasn't as easy to cultivate another batch of bacteria, so the appendix came in handy.

Interestingly, in less developed countries, where the appendix may be still useful, the rate of appendicitis is lower than in the U.S.. Prostate cancer is lower among people who, um, use that more too. Both may be examples of an overly hygienic society producing an over reaction by the body's immune system.

I wonder if eventually we'll find the same sort of thing about the tonsils?


Anonymous said…
Woah, I had my appendix removed last year. I hope nothing happens! 0_0
kaylamae said…
Wow! I had my appendix out in Nov 08 and it turned out to be cancerous. I ended up having a right hemicolectomy and 19 lymph nodes out. So far everything is A-OK but my doctors never mentioned the appendix having a purpose.
Anonymous said…
To the above comments.

I suggest you read the article more carefully. Please note 2 key points. (1) When an appendix goes wrong, it can easily kill you and (2) it may help repopulate bacteria but you can do so without it. So would you rather die from your infection or take a little longer to get bacteria back after your next bout of cholera? I think your doctors probably recommended the smart course of treatment!
And to the article author, yes we have known for many years that tonsils have immunological function.
Tom said…
Um, perhaps you should read what I wrote more carefully! The third paragraph says, "But it can kill ya. In fact, over 300,000 were hospitalized in the U.S. with appendicitis in 2005, and about 300 to 400 Americans die of appendicitis each year."

And did I, in any way, suggest that just because we've discovered that the appendix has some function and is not just vestigial, that we shouldn't treat it properly if problems develop?
Anonymous said…
here ive got a story for yas, when i was 14 last year in october i was slweeping at a friends house, in the middle of the night i woke up with so much pain, i threw up a couple hours later and just thought it was the stomache virus,so did my parents. So i went with this HORRIBLE! HOOOORRIIBBLEE!!!! pain 4 a week, then i went to the hospital got a cat scan and they said my appendix ruptured and i need to go to the or right away. they were surprised i was still alive. but instead they transported me down to a diff hospital where there was a specialist and i stayed in the hospital there 4 a week. they said i had two big puss pockets the ize of tennis balls from the appendix, they said if they wud to also explode or rupture, i wud not live, because of the nasty toxins, but they had gotten the infection out and they finally removed it in dec. im reallly luucky..
Tom said…
Good grief! Why did your folks allow you to live in such pain for so long?!

Sure glad you survived the ordeal.
Anonymous said…
I just had mine removed 2 weeks ago. It started as a stomach ache kinda feeling but then got real bad I tried to get rid of the pain but nothing worked. So I told my boyfriend to get my things together I was going home and by time I got home the pain was so unbearable that I crawled onto the house my little sister drove to a walk in clinic which told me to go to the ER. Lo And behold 3 other appendicitises had come in not to shortly before me. I had to wait till the next day to get surgery done but I'm fine and dandy now! Lucky for me mine was only severely enflamed and hadn't ruptured and they didn't want to just send me home with antibiotics so they just took it out but I'm glad with that cause now I don't have to worry about it anymore!!!
Unknown said…
May I rely upon your comment regarding the "usage" of my prostrate to urge my wife to participate in some form of preventative therapy for prostrate cancer? I can use all the help I can get. Thanks.
Tom said…
Absolutely! "Dear, we need to do this for medical reason. You understand I hope?"
Tom said…
'Course you could take things into your own hands....

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