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This is the second time I've seen research finding that antibiotics  alone could be used (instead of surgery) for the treatment of uncomplicated appendicitis (June 17, 2015 post), but this time in children. Appendicitis is inflammation of the appendix.  At the one year follow-up the researchers found that 75.7% of patients with uncomplicated appendicitis had been successfully treated with antibiotics alone and had not had any recurrences of appendicitis. This is a major finding because for years the gold standard for appendicitis treatment has been an appendectomy. The times are a changing. From Science Daily:

Antibiotics alone can be a safe, effective treatment for children with appendicitis

Using antibiotics alone to treat children with uncomplicated acute appendicitis is a reasonable alternative to surgery when chosen by the family. A study led by researchers at Nationwide Children's Hospital found that three out of four children with uncomplicated appendicitis have been successfully treated with antibiotics alone at one year follow-up. Compared to urgent appendectomy, non-operative management was associated with less recovery time, lower health costs and no difference in the rate of complications at one year.

"Surgery has long been the 'gold standard' of care for treating appendicitis because by removing the appendix we eliminate the chance that the appendicitis will ever come back," said Dr. Deans. "However, early in our careers we noticed that patients with appendicitis who were placed on antibiotics overnight until their surgery the following morning felt better the next day. So, Pete and I asked ourselves: do they really need to have surgery?"

In the first study conducted and published in the United States examining non-operative management for appendicitis, they enrolled 102 patients age 7 to 17 who were diagnosed with uncomplicated acute appendicitis at Nationwide Children's between October 2012 and October 2013. Participants had early/mild appendicitis, meaning that they experienced abdominal pain for no more than 48 hours; had a white blood cell count below 18,000; underwent an ultrasound or CT scan to rule out rupture and to verify that their appendix was 1.1 centimeter thick or smaller; and had no evidence of an abscess or fecalith, which is hard stone-like piece of stool.

Thirty-seven families chose antibiotics alone and 65 opted for surgery. Those patients in the non-operative group were admitted to the hospital and received IV antibiotics for at least 24 hours, followed by oral antibiotics after discharge for a total of 10 days. Among those patients, 95% showed improvement within 24 hours and were discharged without undergoing surgery. Rates of appendicitis-related medical care within 30 days were similar between the groups with two patients in the non-operative group readmitted within 30 days for an appendectomy. At one year after discharge, three out of four patients in the non-operative group did not have appendicitis again and have not undergone surgery.

Appendicitis, caused by a bacterial infection in the appendix, is the most common reason for emergency abdominal surgery in children, sending more than 70,000 young people to the operating room each year. Although many of these cases are severe and require surgery, there are a good number that would be candidates for treatment with antibiotics alone, Dr. Minneci said.

According to the study results, patients who were transferred to Nationwide Children's from other institutions expressed concerns about the distance and time necessary to come back if the appendicitis recurred. These families opted for surgery more often. Patients whose families spoke primary languages other than English were more likely to choose antibiotics as a course of treatment due to cultural values to avoid surgery if at all possible.

Drawing of colon seen from front (appendix is colored red). From Wikipedia.

For more than 100 years, the standard treatment for appendicitis has been surgery. Now a large Finnish study provides the best evidence to date that most patients can be treated with antibiotics alone. How did the usual treatment of doing an appendectomy (appendix removal) arise? In 1886 Dr. Reginald Fitz, while investigating pelvic infections (which resulted in many deaths in those days), decided that an inflamed appendix progresses from a mild inflammation, to gangrene, then perforation, which would result in pelvic abscess. This reason for an appendectomy (that it would prevent serious infection) became established in medical thought and still guides appendicitis management today. But nowadays we have antibiotics! And the researchers noted that some cases resolved on their own without any treatment.

And instead of the prevailing view for many years that the appendix is a "vestigial organ with no purpose",  it turns out that the appendix has a great reason for existence. It seems to provide a safe haven for good bacteria when gastrointestinal illness flushes those bacteria from the rest of the intestines.This reservoir of gut microbes then repopulates the digestive system following the illness. It makes me wonder why some people get appendicitis and others don't - do they have inflammation for some reason so that their bacterial communities are out of whack (dysbiosis)? Would dietary changes help prevent recurrences? From the NY Times:

Antibiotics Are Effective in Appendicitis, Study Says

For more than 100 years, the standard treatment for appendicitis has been surgery. Now a large Finnish study provides the best evidence to date that most patients can be treated with antibiotics alone.The study, published Tuesday in JAMA, involved 530 patients aged 18 to 60 who agreed to have their treatment — antibiotics or surgery — decided at random.Three out of four who took antibiotics recovered easily, the researchers found. And none who had surgery after taking antibiotics were worse off for having waited.

The new study comes amid growing questions about the routine use of surgery to treat appendicitis, which strikes about 300,000 Americans a year, afflicting one out of 10 adults at some point in their lives.

The results only apply to uncomplicated appendicitis, stressed Dr. Paulina Salminen, a surgeon at Turku University Hospital in Finland and lead author of the new study. She and her colleagues excluded from their trial the 20 percent of patients with complicated cases — people with perforated appendices or abdominal abscesses, and those with a little, rock like blockage of the appendix called an appendicolith.

In the 1950s, soon after antibiotics were discovered, some doctors reported success using them to treat patients with appendicitis. But, Dr. Livingston wrote in his editorial, “So powerful is the perceived benefit of appendectomy for appendicitis that surgical treatment for appendicitis remains unquestioned, with seemingly little interest in studying the problem.”

Dr. Livingston also found that most appendices that perforate have already done so by the time the patient shows up at an emergency room. Those that have not perforated when the patient seeks medical help almost never do so. People with so-called uncomplicated appendicitis, he concluded, seem to have a different disease — one that can be treated with antibiotics.

“The reason we take the appendix out and do it as an emergency is the belief, dating back to 1886, that the appendix will eventually become gangrenous and cause a pelvic abscess,” Dr. Livingston said.

Even with the results of the Finnish study, many questions remain. A person who has had one episode of appendicitis is at higher than usual risk for another....Accumulating data has led other experts to raise an even more controversial idea: Perhaps antibiotics aren’t always necessary, either. It is possible, some researchers say, that most people with appendicitis would get better on their own if doctors did nothing. The Finnish team is now planning a clinical trial to test that theory.

Drawing of colon seen from front (the appendix is colored red). From Wikipedia.