The Human Appendix

As I see it - by John Appleton

Many of us have had appendicitis which resulted in the removal of the appendix in an operation known as an appendectomy.

I didn’t have appendicitis but had my own appendix removed during another abdominal surgical procedure. I was told later that the appendix doesn’t perform any useful function and that I was better off without it.  
The appendix is a closed-ended pouch like narrow tube that attaches to the cecum (the first part of the colon where the small intestine joins the large intestine) like a worm. The anatomical name for the appendix, vermiform appendix, means worm-like appendage. Being approximately 5–10 cm long and 0.5–1 cm wide it’s not a large part of our anatomy.
The human appendix has long mystified doctors who have wondered about the necessity of this tiny organ. In fact, the function of the human appendix has been a matter for debate for many years, with healthcare professionals believing it had no good reason to be there. A doctor may have decided to remove your appendix, without your permission because of this long held belief.  In my case I did not have appendicitis and thus there wasn’t a real reason to remove it.
Of course, if your appendix becomes inflamed and infected it can be life threatening and then it does become necessary to have it removed to save your life. I don’t have New Zealand statistics, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S., 300 to 400 Americans die, and about 321,000 are hospitalised for appendicitis attacks each year.
The appendix is present in many primates, and in our distant past may have been an aid in the digestion of cellulose when we had a more plant-based diet. Charles Darwin was a proponent of this theory. The appendix is often considered to be a vestige of evolutionary development despite evidence to the contrary. It has thus been regarded as a vestigial organ (a nonfunctional characteristic that has been fully functional at some point in time). Humans have a number of so-called vestigial organs such as male nipples, wisdom teeth, tailbones (coccyx) and ear muscles.
Surgeons and immunologists at Duke University Medical School believe that the appendix does indeed serve an important function inside the human body after all and they say that they have sufficient evidence to back up their theory. They say that the appendix appears to help produce and protect the good bacteria in the intestines by acting like a "good bacteria factory" that "cultivates and preserves" the good bacteria which maintain a vital balance in the intestines.
Thus when the gut is affected by a bout of diarrhea or other illness, says researcher William Parker PhD, “once the bowel contents have left the body, the good bacteria hidden away in the appendix can emerge and repopulate the lining of the intestine before more harmful bacteria can take up residence," The appendix appears to act in rebooting the digestive system with beneficial bacteria. It also stores and protects them until they are needed.
I was disappointed to read that the researchers in this study concluded that “the appendix is really an unnecessary organ in today's modern world”. They say that in a modern society, less of these good bacteria are needed due to better hygiene practices. They theorise that repopulating the gut with good bacteria is not that hard to do. It may not be if people were to supplement daily with probiotics (which are expensive) but how many of us do this?
I guess the debate over the necessity or otherwise of the appendix will continue for many years. I seem to be coping reasonably well without mine, but I will never really know if I would be better off if I still had it?

John Appleton
09 489 9362