What Is the Appendix? A Vestigial Organ, or One With a Purpose?
The 'Safe House' Theory of the Appendix
Some scientists now believe the appendix is not useless after all, and may help our guts recover after a gastrointestinal disease strikes.
More on Digestive Health
The appendix contains a particular type of tissue associated with the lymphatic system, which carries the white blood cells needed to fight infections. In recent years, scientists have found that lymphatic tissue encourages the growth of some beneficial gut bacteria, which play an important role in human digestion and immunity.
Studies have also shown that the lining of the gut contains a biofilm, or a thin layer of microbes, mucus, and immune system molecules — and these biofilms appear to be most pronounced in the appendix. (5)
According to the so-called "safe house" theory, the appendix protects a collection of beneficial gut bacteria when certain diseases wipe them out from elsewhere in the GI tract. Once the immune system has rid the body of the infection, the bacteria emerge from the appendix biofilm and recolonize the gut. (6)
A review of the relevant available research, published in October 2019 in the journalClinical & Experimental Immunology, concluded that the appendix is not a rudimentary organ but an “important part” of the immune system. (7)
Researchers have recently found that numerous animals, including great apes, other primates, opossums, wombats, rabbits, and certain rodents all have structures similar to the appendix. (8) The appendix, it seems, may have independently evolved in different animals at least 32 times over the course of history, suggesting the organ does have an important function. (4)
Potential Health Issues Involving the Appendix
Sometimes, the appendix can become inflamed and infected, resulting in a condition called appendicitis.
Appendicitis is often the result of an abdominal infection that has spread to the tiny organ, or some kind of obstruction that has blocked the small opening of the appendix. Sources of blockage include, among other things:
- Hard pieces of stool
- Parasites or intestinal worms
- Ingested objects, including air gun pellets and pins
- Abdominal trauma
- GI tract ulcers
- Enlarged appendix lymphatic tissue
The infection or obstruction causes the bacteria in the appendix to grow out of control, and the organ can fill with pus and swell. Appendicitis causes intense abdominal pain and other GI symptoms, including vomiting and diarrhea. Removal of the appendix (an appendectomy) is often the necessary course of action, though increasingly, antibiotics may be recommended and used to treat the infection without the need for surgical intervention — depending on the severity of the case and other health factors in the individual patient. If the problem is left untreated, the pressure in the organ will increase until the appendix ruptures, or bursts.
When the appendix bursts, it spreads its content throughout the abdomen, potentially infecting the peritoneum, which is the silk-like membrane that lines the abdominal cavity.
Video: Vestigial Structures
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