Appendicitis is a common condition, but also difficult to diagnose correctly. The difficulty lies in the overlap between appendix inflammation and other illnesses of the digestive system, and the vagueness and genericness of the symptoms. Major symptoms of appendicitis include abdominal pain that gets sharper over time, tenderness, nausea, and poor appetite. However, a variety of other ailments, such as a viral infection, have the same symptoms. Making the distinction is important because wrongly diagnosing appendicitis can lead to unneeded surgery, but the treatments for many other causes of the same symptoms can make the appendix more likely to rupture.
Appendicitis can follow an infection, but it is usually not directly caused by one. More commonly, the cause of the inflammation is an obstruction in the appendix. A blockage, generally by something called an appendicolith, can cause waste and mucous to build up in the appendix, causing inflammation. Left untreated, this can lead to rupture or death.
Because of the danger of misdiagnosis, medical professionals use CAT scans to determine if appendicitis is the actual problem. Though other testing can eliminate other possible causes of pain—blood tests to look for infection, urinalysis to find signs that indicate a urinary tract infection or kidney stones—imaging tests can save time and improve accuracy by looking directly at the appendix itself to see if there is inflammation. This is actually quite common, because appendicitis is treated as a medical emergency, and surgery needs to be done as soon as possible.
However, there is some concern that the radiation from CAT scans, and the higher radiation from x-rays, another imaging technique used to look at the appendix, can increase the cancer risk in young patients. To minimize this risk, the use of ultrasound to look at the appendix is becoming more common, according to a recent study. Researchers say that while ultrasound needs to be interpreted by specialists, it is a safer option when the equipment and personnel are available.