The diagnosis of appendicitis begins with a thorough history and physical examination. Patients often have an elevated temperature, and there usually will be moderate to severe tenderness in the right lower abdomen when the doctor pushes there. If inflammation has spread to the peritoneum, there is frequently rebound tenderness. Rebound tenderness is pain that is worse when the doctor quickly releases his hand after gently pressing on the abdomen over the area of tenderness.
White Blood Cell Count
The white blood cell count in the blood usually becomes elevated with infection. In early appendicitis, before infection sets in, it can be normal, but most often there is at least a mild elevation even early. Unfortunately, appendicitis is not the only condition that causes elevated white blood cell counts. Almost any infection or inflammation can cause this count to be abnormally high. Therefore, an elevated white blood cell count alone cannot be used as a sign of appendicitis.
Urinalysis is a microscopic examination of the urine that detects red blood cells, white blood cells and bacteria in the urine. Urinalysis usually is abnormal when there is inflammation or stones in the kidneys or bladder. The urinalysis also may be abnormal with appendicitis because the appendix lies near the ureter and bladder. If the inflammation of appendicitis is great enough, it can spread to the ureter and bladder leading to an abnormal urinalysis. Most patients with appendicitis, however, have a normal urinalysis. Therefore, a normal urinalysis suggests appendicitis more than a urinary tract problem.
An abdominal X-ray may detect the fecalith (the hardened and calcified, pea-sized piece of stool that blocks the appendiceal opening) that may be the cause of appendicitis. This is especially true in children.
An ultrasound is a painless procedure that uses sound waves to identify organs within the body. Ultrasound can identify an enlarged appendix or an abscess. Nevertheless, during appendicitis, the appendix can be seen in only 50% of patients. Therefore, not seeing the appendix during an ultrasound does not exclude appendicitis. Ultrasound also is helpful in women because it can exclude the presence of conditions involving the ovaries, Fallopian tubes and uterus that can mimic appendicitis.
A barium enema is an X-ray test where liquid barium is inserted into the colon from the anus to fill the colon. This test can, at times, show an impression on the colon in the area of the appendix where the inflammation from the adjacent inflammation impinges on the colon. Barium enema also can exclude other intestinal problems that mimic appendicitis, for example Crohn's disease.
Computerized tomography (CT) Scan
In patients who are not pregnant, a CT scan of the area of the appendix is useful in diagnosing appendicitis and peri-appendiceal abscesses as well as in excluding other diseases inside the abdomen and pelvis that can mimic appendicitis.
Laparoscopy is a surgical procedure in which a small fiberoptic tube with a camera is inserted into the abdomen through a small puncture made on the abdominal wall. Laparoscopy allows a direct view of the appendix as well as other abdominal and pelvic organs. If appendicitis is found, the inflamed appendix can be removed with the laparoscope. The disadvantage of laparoscopy compared to ultrasound and CT is that it requires a general anesthetic.
There is no one test that will diagnose appendicitis with certainty. Therefore, the approach to suspected appendicitis may include a period of observation, tests as previously discussed, or surgery.
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Archived: March 20, 2014
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