In medical school we learned that nothing in the body is useless. Well maybe my ovaries have become so, but that will be discussed in my next article on facial hair.
It troubled many of us in the medical profession that an appendage attached to the right sided colon, cecum to be specific, would be useless. We have to study the appendix profusely in school as an appendicitis attack is not one to be misdiagnosed. I took out so many appendixes in my training that I could do it blindfolded. This “vestigial structure” denoting it didn’t have a function, did so as far as I was concerned. It averaged approximately 10 cm, was about 1 cm in diameter when not swollen and abscessed and was a uniquely hollow tube.
If an organ or body part becomes useless, nature selects it out. This is why humans don’t have tails. We can pull eachothers hair if we need pull something. Over 500 animal species have appendixes. Must be for a darn good reason.
Grammar note. The plural word for the organ appendix is “appendixes”. If we were discussing a segment in a book, it would be “appendices”.
Then in 2007, a team of immunologists from Duke University reported that the appendix has a function: to produce and harbor healthy bacteria that can help “reboot” the gut when it becomes low in its microbiota. Makes sense. But not everyone got the memo and I overheard people in line at Starbucks talk about how the appendix was useless all over again.
This month, scientists at Midwestern University Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine again confirm that the dangling worm like tube had a purpose. Not only did they believe the appendix to be a reservoir for good bacteria but also play a role in our immune system with its high level of lymphoid tissue. Dr. Heather Smith, lead author, stated “In animals that have an appendix, there is a higher concentration of lymphoid tissue in the cecum.” Moreover she said, “The appendix has a concentration of good gut bacteria that can repopulate the gut.”
The cecum is a pouch like structure that marks the beginning of the large intestine. It receives the food that was digested in the small intestine and starts its passage through the colon, which will absorb its water content and prepare it to become its dream…..poop.
We see more and more studies discussing our digestive system’s bacteria and its role in our health. It would make perfect sense that our colon had a means to repopulate its bacteria inhabitants if stress, antibiotics, or diarrhea washed it away. As we come to learn that we big organisms rely more and more on microorganisms, we face the fact that the simplest of all creatures deserve credit for our existence. Its time we appreciate the simplest of organs as well……our friend the appendix.
Medical Spanish made easy
Daliah Wachs, MD, FAAFP is a nationally syndicated radio personality on GCN Network, iHeart Radio and Board Certified Family Physician