By Korin Miller
Some people with horrible stomach pain curl into the fetal position and watch Stranger Things re-runs until it passes. Others incessantly Google “how to tell if your appendix burst,” just in case. Still others who happen to be excellent multitaskers may be able to pull off both.
It’s true that bad stomach pain can be a sign of appendicitis, a health condition that happens when your appendix becomes inflamed, or even a burst appendix, which is a life-threatening emergency. But if you actually have either of these conditions, settling in with Eleven and the gang won’t be an option. Your body will sound the alarm in such a way that you’ll know something is really wrong.
Appendicitis comes with a few key symptoms to know.
First, some basics: Your appendix, a finger-shaped pouch in the lower right side of your abdomen, attaches to your large intestine. Unlike most of your organs, your appendix doesn’t have an actual purpose that’s important to your bodily functions, according to the Mayo Clinic. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t do anything, though.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, your appendix stays busy by creating mucus. The mucus then travels through the appendiceal lumen (inside of the appendix) and empties into the large intestine—that place where poop transitions from liquid to solid. But sometimes stool might block your appendiceal lumen. So can ulcers, which can arise due to GI irritation from conditions like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
If the appendiceal lumen is obstructed, the bacteria that lives in the appendix can multiply and lead to appendicitis, which essentially means having an inflamed appendix that’s filled with pus. Appendicitis can cause the following symptoms, per the NIDDK and the Mayo Clinic:
- Sudden pain that starts near your belly button then moves down and to the right
- Pain that gets worse over a couple of hours
- Pain that intensifies if you inhale deeply, cough, sneeze, or make any other sudden movements
- Pain that doesn’t feel like anything you’ve ever experienced before
- The sensation that pooping will make you feel better
- A low-grade fever that may become more severe as the pain grows
- A bloated abdomen
- Feeling unable to pass gas
If appendicitis isn’t treated quickly enough, your appendix can actually burst.
A burst appendix isn’t the kind of pain you can ignore. “When the appendix bursts, stool and [pus] essentially seep into the lining of your abdomen,” Kyle Staller, M.D., M.P.H., a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells SELF. “Then, you’re in exquisite pain.”
Rudolph Bedford, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., agrees. “It’s quite severe—you’ll be doubled over,” he tells SELF. You may even feel a sudden increase in pain when your appendix actually bursts, Dr. Bedford says. Along with the pain, you can expect any other appendicitis symptoms you were experiencing to intensify as well.
At this point, you should definitely be on your way to the emergency room. “You’re not going to try to manage the pain at home, believe me,” Dr. Bedford says.
Once you’re diagnosed, doctors will typically recommend removing your appendix.
Doctors will typically give you a physical exam, run lab tests, and do imaging tests in order to make a diagnosis, according to the NIDDK.
It’s possible to clear up less severe cases of appendicitis with antibiotics, and the NIDDK notes that administering these drugs is usually the first step in treating this condition. But doctors will still typically recommend an appendectomy—removal of the appendix—to completely eliminate the chance that appendicitis will progress into a burst appendix, Dr. Bedford says.
And if your appendix has already burst, you’ll definitely need to have it taken out, and quickly. Otherwise you’re at risk for sepsis, a life-threatening complication that happens when your body creates inflammation in response to an infection, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Recovery times from appendix surgery vary depending on how advanced your appendicitis was. You can expect to spend a day or two in the hospital after the procedure, the Mayo Clinic says. Beyond that, your doctor will likely recommend limiting physical activity for three to five days after a laparoscopic appendectomy and 10 to 14 days after an open one, according to the NIDDK.
If you’re having severe stomach pain and you’re not sure what you’re dealing with, don’t hesitate to call your doctor or go straight to the ER. It’ll be one of the stranger things that’s happened to you, but with prompt treatment, you should heal just fine.