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Do I Need My Appendix? Area Surgeon Explains Oft-Misunderstood Organ

Dr. Robert Raniolo of Hudson Valley Surgical Group.
Dr. Robert Raniolo of Hudson Valley Surgical Group. Photo Credit: Hudson Valley Surgical Group

SLEEPY HOLLOW, N.Y. -- For such a small, seemingly unimportant organ, the appendix can certainly cause a lot of problems. According to Dr. Robert Raniolo, founder and senior partner at Hudson Valley Surgical Group in Sleepy Hollow, issues with this non-functioning organ are more common than most think.

"One the most common abdominal emergencies we see is appendicitis," said Raniolo. In fact, one in every thousand people will have appendicitis, he said, making it a routine procedure for surgeons.

The appendix itself is a small, tubular structure, roughly the size of a short pencil, attached to the right colon. The organ is part of the digestive track, but has no digestive function. "I don't think anyone knows what the purpose of the appendix really was," said Raniolo. "We've seen Egyptian mummies with appendicitis and some of the first pictures of the appendix were drawn by Leonardo da Vinci."

Telltale symptoms of appendicitis include pain in the right lower abdomen, sometimes accompanied by chills, loss of appetite or nausea. When patients feel these signs, it's important they visit a doctor before the situation worsens, said Raniolo. "When appendicitis is unrecognized, it can lead to perforation -- or holes --  that allows bacteria to seep into abdominal cavity," he said. These appendix bursts, once deadly, have seen a significant decline in mortality rate thanks to quicker diagnoses and better antibiotics.

Much has changed since the first appendectomy was performed in England in 1887. Today, surgeons use smaller incisions, minimizing invasiveness in unnecessary areas of the abdominal cavity. "We make a small cut no bigger than half inch, insert micro-instruments, and through the help of a camera, are able to remove the appendix laparoscopically," said Raniolo. "We can also treat infections with antibiotics to reduce the swelling and remove the appendix when it is simpler to do so." 

Although our bodies have shown no signs of phasing out the appendix, the future of surgery continues to grow in leaps and bounds. "I predict that in time we'll lie on a table, a scanner will scan the stomach, come up with a map and ultimately make an incision and perform the procedure without a surgeon ever having to be present," said Raniolo.

To learn more about the procedures available at Hudson Valley Surgical Group, click here.