Watch CBS News

Good Question: What does the appendix do and why are we fine without it?

What's the purpose of the appendix?
What's the purpose of the appendix? 03:00

MINNEAPOLIS — Stephen Colbert is away from late-night TV following emergency surgery last week — the comedian's appendix burst.

That made us wonder: What does the appendix do for our body? And why are we fine without it? Good Question. Jeff Wagner explains the mystery behind the tiny organ.

In the skyway system lining Minneapolis, we showed passersby a picture of the appendix to see if they could guess the organ's name. While most could identify it, all had no idea of its function in the body. "It cleans something," guessed Art. His theory isn't far off.

"For many, many years, surgeons thought it was a way to stay in business," joked Dr. Richard Zera, a surgical oncologist at Hennepin Healthcare.

What does the appendix do for the body? For a long time, doctors and scientists couldn't figure out the exact function. But recent research has landed on one highly plausible explanation. "We found out it's very important in the immune system of the (gastrointestinal) tract," said Zera.

He said the appendix is a reservoir of good bacteria for the colon. The appendix then repopulates the colon with good bacteria to maintain a healthy balance, something that can be interrupted by sickness. "It's important after certain illnesses, like diarrheal illnesses or C. difficile infection, to get the colon back in order," Zera said.

What leads to appendicitis? It starts with a blockage of the opening where the appendix meets the large intestine.

Zera said the blockage can come from a parasite, hardened stool or general inflammation. It leads to stomach pains that shift to the lower right sight of the abdomen, nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite. Often it needs to be removed through surgery and especially after it bursts.

"Many people live just perfectly normal lives without their appendix," Zera said as he raised his hand. "I had mine out 60 years ago or so."

Appendicitis is classified as uncomplicated or complicated.

Both versions involve inflammation. Uncomplicated appendicitis can be treated with antibiotics, but Zera said there's a 40% chance the patient will get it again. Surgery might then be the best option.

The symptoms for complicated appendicitis are more painful and severe with the appendix sometimes bursting. That could lead to an infection that's life-threatening, making surgery the only option.

Why are we ok without the appendix? "That's another good question," Zera said. "Apparently its function, while important, is subtle enough that other parts of the colon, perhaps the cecum, takes care of a little bit of that role."

Simply put, the appendix is like a little helper for your gut that won't hurt you if it's gone but can hurt you when it needs to go.

"Recovery from an appendectomy is pretty quick these days," said Zera, adding it typically takes 3-4 days to recover from the surgery.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.