Posts Tagged ‘appendicitis’

This one isn’t exactly “evolutionary medicine”, but it sure is a smart, cheap, and (in my experience) unheard of little tip for shortening hospital stay (and thus cutting the bill) for some surgery cases.

Surgery comes with innate risks. Bleeding and infection can occur with any surgery, but operations that affect the bowel come with additional risks and concerns. One frequent complication of abdominal operations is postoperative ileus- a temporary paralysis of the intestinal tract after surgery that is usually related to the degree of surgical trauma and bowel manipulation.

When you are part of the surgical team, an important part of post-surgical care is keeping track of the workings (or lack thereof) of the patients’ digestive system. A typical morning check-up on a patient might go something like this:

“Hello! How are you feeling this morning?” (This exchange usually takes place around 5:30 in the morning… Anyone who says “good” is obviously bluffing!

“Sleep well?” (I think I may be the only student that cares about this question.)

“Any pain?”

“And have you had a bowel movement? No? Ah- have you passed any gas? Above or below?”

Yes, when you enter the world of medicine, the taboos of normal conversation (indeed, many social graces) are quickly forgotten.  Gone are the tendencies to giggle when someone says “fart”. Instead, the return of a patient’s bowel function can become a celebrated event amongst the team.

Post operative ileus is likely caused by a number of factors, including increased sympathetic activity (the fight-or-flight side of our autonomic nervous system) which overpowers the parasympathic (the rest-and-digest) system, as well as inflammatory mediators.  Additionally, some of the drugs that are used before, during, and after surgery may also inhibit bowel motility [1].

Ileus can delay patient recovery and increase the length of patient hospitalization, which leads to greater healthcare care costs. So how can we decrease ileus?

There is some evidence to suggest that therapies such as early postoperative mobilization (getting up and walking) and early feeding may decrease post-operative ileus [1].  I’m particularly interested in early post-operative feeding, which seems to come with a host of benefits in comparison to “NPO” (nil by mouth) that is common after surgery.  In fact, in a meta-analysis of 11 studies including 837 patients, early post-operative feeding significantly reduced the risk of any type of infection and reduced the mean length of stay in the hospital.  It also reduced (though not statistically significantly) the risk of anastomotic dehiscence (the breakdown of the site where bowel was sewn together), wound infection, pneumonia, intra-abdominal abscesses, and mortality. The down-side of early post-operative feeding is that the patients have an increased risk of vomiting [2].

But is there a way to get the benefits of early feeding without the risk of vomiting? Is there a cheap and easy way to increase the rate at which bowel function returns?  It appears the answer is yes, and it is incredibly cheap and easy: Gum.

Gum chewing works as a type of sham-feeding that promotes intestinal motility. It seems that chewing gum causes our brain to pass the signal to our stomach that food is on the way. In normal volunteers, gum chewing stimulates gastric secretions. In patients, gum chewing appears to wake the GI tract up more quickly than if their mouth stays idle [1].

A meta-analysis of 9 trials including 437 patients showed a reduction in time to first flatus (the medical term for fart), time to first bowel movement, and reduction in hospital stay in patients in treatment groups versus controls. The treatment groups chewed sugarless gum at least three times a day for 5-45 minutes starting on the first post-operative day [1]. While early post-operative feeding seems to offer a number of benefits in comparison to fasting, it can be poorly tolerated and only taken in small amounts. Chewing gum is a method of sham-feeding that stimulates bowel activity, without the possibility of vomiting or the limited intake of food seen in some patients.

I have heard surgeons at our University talk about the data regarding early-feeding. I have not heard anyone talk about the benefits of gum chewing.  The data is out there, but unlike pharmaceutical interventions which have drug-reps proclaiming their benefits, simple interventions such as these are not widely promoted.  Who would benefit from promoting this information?  Even if every hospital ward in the country started stocking gum, I doubt the gum-makers would notice an uptick in their bottom line- this isn’t exactly a high dollar intervention. In fact, the meta analysis suggests that chewing gum can reduce the length of hospital stay by a mean of approximately 2 days at the average cost of $0.60 per patient [1].

It is important to mention that many of the studies included in the meta-analysis were conducted in Africa, where the risk of complication and the subsequent length of stay are much higher than in the US.  While on my surgery rotation, I saw some patients go home less than 24 hours after having their appendix removed. One paper from 2006 shows that the mean hospital stay after appendectomy at a teaching hospital in South Africa was 10.6 days [3]. Indeed, much of the primary data that I read about surgery in the developing world leaves me cold.

Laparoscopic surgery (performed through small incisions in the abdomen and visualized with a small camera), means that simple procedures such as the removal of an appendix or gallbladder can be done with minimal trauma and scarring. In developing countries, these operations are still done with open incisions, in operating rooms that lack many of the most basic tools necessary for good surgical care.

Angela’s recent guest post has inspired me to think more about the great disparities in health, disease, and medical care in the developed and the developing world.  As I read more about surgery and medical care in Africa, I realize that even the simplest of interventions can have a huge impact on health care, especially in developing areas. This was also brought through in Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto, which I read recently.

It is unrealistic to think that hospitals in developing nations will be equipped with cutting edge technology to perform minimally invasive surgery any time in the near future. Such technology is expensive, and it requires surgeons who have been trained to use it (not to mention reliable sources of electricity to power the equipment).  Yet simple solutions, such as post-operative gum chewing, can offer serious benefits that should not be ignored [4].  And if I find myself on the other side of an early morning post-op check-in, I know I’ll be requesting something to chew on*!

*It should go without saying that this post is not meant as specific medical advice, but as an exploration of a potentially useful therapy that doctors should consider. If you find yourself on the wrong side of the operating table, work with your medical team to get yourself on the road to recovery ASAP.


1.            Noble, E.J., R. Harris, K.B. Hosie, S. Thomas, and S.J. Lewis, Gum chewing reduces postoperative ileus? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Surg, 2009. 7(2): p. 100-5.

2.            Lewis, S.J., M. Egger, P.A. Sylvester, and S. Thomas, Early enteral feeding versus “nil by mouth” after gastrointestinal surgery: systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled trials. BMJ, 2001. 323(7316): p. 773-6.

3.            Ayoade, B.A., O.A. Olawoye, B.A. Salami, and A.A. Banjo, Acute appendicitis in Olabisi Onabanjo University Teaching Hospital Sagamu, a three year review. Niger J Clin Pract, 2006. 9(1): p. 52-6.

4.            Ngowe, M.N., V.C. Eyenga, B.H. Kengne, J. Bahebeck, and A.M. Sosso, Chewing gum reduces postoperative ileus after open appendectomy. Acta Chir Belg, 2010. 110(2): p. 195-9.


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I hope that my last post persuaded you that the appendix is not the pathetic remains of our forbearers’ large cecum, but is in fact a nifty piece of anatomy that maintains a safe house for the normal micro flora of our gut (If you’re interested in gut micro flora, Melissa wrote a great post here). While this little organ seems to work well in developing countries where there are frequent outbreaks of enteric pathogens and minimal hygiene, something seems to have gone awry in the developing world. While appendicitis is exceedingly rare in developing countries, it has been reported that up to 6% of the population in industrialized countries develop appendicitis necessitating appendectomy [1]. Why has our bacterial safe house turned into a ticking time bomb?

As early as 1505, Leonardo da Vinci identified the appendix and recognized that it sometimes became inflamed and burst. Much of his medical knowledge was lost, and it wasn’t recognized again until 1705 when the (then very young) father of clinical case reports, Giovanni Battista Morgagni, dissected a man who had died of appendicitis and subsequent peritonitis. That case actually revolutionized the understanding of medicine, with Morgagni and his mentor Valsalva recognizing that a specific disease was caused by a specific condition in a specific part of the body. This showed that illness was not caused by an imbalance of humors or a generalized malaise, but rather a specific cause. This one case led Morgagni and Valsalva to perform autopsies on all their deceased patients, and their detailed notes of over 700 cases were analyzed and published in the book On the Seats and Causes of Disease as Indicated by Anatomy. This book, and the idea that disease is caused by specific disorders, revolutionized medicine.

While appendicitis was one of the first diseases for which the anatomical source was recognized, we still don’t clearly understand why the condition occurs. It is generally believed that appendicitis occurs when the appendix is obstructed (by obstruction of the opening into the cecum by feces or swelling of the appendix due to proliferation of the tissue of the appendix itself), and the mucinous products of the appendix build up, leading to increased pressure and eventually tissue death. This dead tissue encourages bacterial proliferation (and we’re no longer talking about the friendly house-keeping type). Acute appendicitis is a medical emergency, and one that must be diagnosed and handled quickly. The removal of an inflamed, but intact, appendix is a much easier and neater procedure than trying to manage the aftermath of a ruptured appendix and subsequent peritonitis. If you think you might have appendicitis- get thee to the emergency department!

But why has appendicitis become so common? Appendectomy is sometimes referred to as ‘bread and butter’ for a general surgeon, but in developing countries this condition is almost unheard of. The rate of appendicitis is reported to be about 35-fold higher in the United States than in areas of African unaffected by modern health care and sanitation. Additionally, as communities adopt Western sanitation and hygiene practices, the rate of appendicitis increases [2]. Could appendicitis be another result of the “hygiene hypothesis”- the idea that modern medicine and sanitation can lead to an under-stimulated and over-active immune system?

As discussed in my first post, the appendix is associated with a large amount of gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). While I pointed out that the appendix does secrete some substances that actively encourage the formation of biofilms for friendly bacteria, GALT also plays a role in the more typically recognized ‘keep the bad guys out’ aspect of the immune system. It’s that part of the system that tends to go awry with our modern hygienic world. Our immune system evolved to handle and control a number of different pathogens, including unfriendly bacteria and parasites. In the absence of pathogens, however, the system can go amiss The immune system is primed and looking for a fight, and if nothing appropriate comes along to take a beating, the immune system can start getting self-destructive, going after the body in which it is housed. It’s a classic case of ‘idle hands’ (or an active teenager with no good way to get the energy out!). This may well play a role in the prevalence of appendicitis in the developed world: overactive GALT tissue causes the appendix to swell, plugging the appendix, stopping the secretions from exiting into the cecum, and leading to increased pressure and subsequent necrosis and disease. (This is the condition that tends to occur in young people. In older people, appendicitis tends to be caused by the physical blockage of the appendix by a coprolith).

So is that it? In the past, and in the developing world, the appendix operated as a safe house for commensal bacteria. In the modern/hygienic world the appendix isn’t really needed, and can in fact get a bit out of whack because it doesn’t have anything to direct it’s immune-related functions towards. It definitely seems as though this might be the case, and unfortunately the problem appears to extend beyond the appendix. It turns out that an overactive appendix may also play a role in ulcerative colitis- an inflammatory condition of the large intestine. In some people with ulcerative colitis, an appendectomy improves the symptoms of ulcerative colitis, and in others it can completely cure the condition. The intended purpose of the appendix may shed light on why this pathology occurs. First- in a hyper-immune state, the appendix may house bacteria that the immune system aberrantly attacks. Alternatively (or additionally), the GALT tissue may drive the gut into a hyper-immune state. In either case- understanding the evolutionary purpose of the appendix can help understand and treat the conditions that occur in our modern hygienic world. Furthermore, it offers evidence that we should think about the impact of our uber-hygienic world, and consider how we might best handle the mismatch between our immune system that evolved to keep us safe in a dirty world and our modern clean environment.

(If you’re looking for a scholarly discussion of this topic, I highly recommend The cecal appendix: one more immune component with a function disturbed by post-industrial culture [2].)

1.            Bollinger, R.R., A.S. Barbas, E.L. Bush, S.S. Lin, and W. Parker, Biofilms in the normal human large bowel: fact rather than fiction. Gut, 2007. 56(10): p. 1481-2.

2.            Laurin, M., M.L. Everett, and W. Parker, The cecal appendix: one more immune component with a function disturbed by post-industrial culture. Anat Rec (Hoboken), 2011. 294(4): p. 567-79.

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