Citation, DOI, disclosures and article data
At the time the article was created Dr Koshy Jacob had no recorded disclosures.View Dr Koshy Jacob's current disclosures
At the time the article was last revised Henry Knipe had the following disclosures:
- Integral Diagnostics, Shareholder (ongoing)
- Micro-X Ltd, Shareholder (ongoing)
These were assessed during peer review and were determined to not be relevant to the changes that were made.View Henry Knipe's current disclosures
Acute appendicitis (plural: appendicitides) is an acute inflammation of the vermiform appendix. It is a very common condition in general radiology practice and is one of the main reasons for abdominal surgery in young patients. CT is the most sensitive modality to detect appendicitis.
On this page:
Appendicitis may be acute or chronic. Chronic appendicitis is an uncommon entity 25. Acute appendicitis may be simple/uncomplicated or complicated by gangrene, abscess, or perforation.
If status post appendectomy, then stump appendicitis may still occur.
If the appendix failed to descend normally during development then a subhepatic appendicitis may be seen.
Acute appendicitis is typically a disease of children and young adults with a peak incidence in the 2nd to 3rd decades of life 1.
The classical presentation consists of periumbilical pain (referred) which within a day or later localizes to the McBurney point with associated fever, nausea, and vomiting 2. This progression is only seen in a minority of cases and is unhelpful in children who often present with vague and non-specific signs and symptoms. It also relies on the appendix being in a 'normal' position, which is not the case in a significant number of cases (see below).
General signs and symptoms include 1,2:
localized pain and tenderness
right lower quadrant tenderness over appendix (i.e. McBurney sign)
pelvic pain, diarrhea, and tenesmus (pelvic appendix)
flank pain (retrocecal appendix)
groin pain - appendix within an inguinal hernia (Amyand hernia) or a femoral hernia (De Garengeot hernia)
right upper quadrant pain (subhepatic appendicitis) 22
nausea and vomiting
within the pelvis (30%)
left iliac fossa (rare), found in patients with a long appendix, intestinal malrotation, situs inversus and those with a mobile cecum
Several clinical prediction and decision scores (rules) have been developed to improve diagnostic accuracy and reduce the rate of negative appendectomies, some of which are in routine clinical use:
in children, clinicians sometimes use other scores such as a PAS or pARC score 3 for the same purpose
Appendicitis is typically caused by obstruction of the appendiceal lumen, with the resultant build-up of fluid, suppurative inflammation, secondary infection, venous congestion, ischemia and necrosis. Obstruction may be caused by 1,23:
lymphoid hyperplasia (~60%)
foreign bodies (~4%)
Crohn disease or other rare causes, e.g. stricture, tumor, parasite
One of the biggest challenges of imaging the appendix is finding it. Once confidently identified, assessing its normality is relatively straightforward.
Fecal loading of the cecum is associated with acute appendicitis, which is uncommon in other acute inflammatory diseases of the right side of the abdomen 24.
The location of the base of the appendix is relatively constant, located roughly between the ileocecal valve and the apex of the cecum. This relationship is maintained even when the cecum is mobile.
The location of the tip of the appendix is much more variable, especially as the length of the appendix has an extensive range (2-20 cm) 9. The distribution of positions is described as 8,9:
behind the cecum (ascending retrocecal): 65%
inferior to the cecum (subcecal): 31%
behind the cecum (transverse retrocecal): 2%
anterior to the ileum (ascending paracaecal preileal): 1%
posterior to the ileum (ascending paracaecal retroileal): 0.5%
Appendiceal diameter >6 mm has been commonly used as a cut-off for acute appendicitis but this has been shown as a sensitive but not specific sign of acute appendicits. The normal range of appendiceal diameter has been shown to be 2-13 mm (adults) 27 and 3-9 mm (paediastric) 28.
Plain radiography is infrequently able to give the diagnosis, however, is useful for identifying free gas, and may show an appendicolith in 7-15% of cases 1. In the right clinical setting, finding an appendicolith makes the probability of acute appendicitis up to 90%.
If an inflammatory phlegmon is present, displacement of cecal gas with mural thickening may be evident.
Small bowel obstruction pattern with small bowel dilatation and air-fluid levels is present in ~40% of perforations.
Ultrasound with its lack of ionizing radiation should be the investigation of choice in young patients. With a competent user, ultrasonography is reliable at identifying abnormal appendices, especially in thin patients. However, the identification of a normal appendix is more problematic, and in many instances, appendicitis cannot be ruled out.
The technique used is known as graded compression, using the linear probe over the site of maximal tenderness, with gradual increasing pressure exerted to displace normal overlying bowel gas.
Findings supportive of the diagnosis of appendicitis include 5:
aperistaltic, non-compressible, dilated appendix (>6 mm outer diameter)
appears round when compression is applied
ultrasound measurements have been shown to be 1-2 mm less than CT measurements 34
hyperechoic appendicolith with posterior acoustic shadowing
distinct appendiceal wall layers
implies non-necrotic (catarrhal or phlegmon) stage
loss of wall stratification with necrotic (gangrenous) stages 18
echogenic prominent pericaecal and periappendiceal fat
periappendiceal hyperechoic structure: amorphous hyperechoic structure (usually >10 mm) seen surrounding a non-compressible appendix with a diameter >6 mm 11
periappendiceal fluid collection
target appearance (axial section)
periappendiceal reactive nodal prominence/enlargement
wall thickening (3 mm or above)
mural hyperemia with color flow Doppler increases the specificity 17
vascular flow may be lost with necrotic stages
alteration of the mural spectral Doppler envelope 16
may support diagnosis in equivocal cases
a peak systolic velocity >10 cm/s suggested as a cutoff
a resistive index (RI) measured at >0.65 may be more specific
Confirming that the structure visualized is the appendix is clearly essential and requires demonstration of it being blind-ending and arising from the base of the cecum. Identifying the terminal ileum confidently is also helpful.
A dynamic ultrasound technique using a sequential 3-step patient positioning protocol has been shown to increase the detection rate of appendix 10. In the study, patients were initially examined in the conventional supine position, followed by the left posterior oblique position (45° LPO) and then a “second-look” supine position. Reported detection rates increased from 30% in the initial supine position to 44% in the LPO position and a further increase to 53% with the “second-look” supine position. Slightly larger absolute and relative detection rates were seen in children. The authors suggested that the effect of the LPO positioning step improved the acoustic window by shifting bowel contents.
CT is highly sensitive (94-98%) and specific (up to 97%) for the diagnosis of acute appendicitis and allows for alternative causes of abdominal pain also to be diagnosed. The need for contrast (IV, oral or both) is debatable and varies from institution to institution. Oral contrast has not been shown to increase the sensitivity of CT 12. Nonetheless, many radiologists advocate the use of oral contrast in patients with a low BMI (<25).
CT findings include 1,2,4:
appendiceal diameter is increased in acute appendicitis 32
≥8-9 mm outer-to-outer diameter has been suggested as a cut-off value 30,33 but note this overlaps with the upper limit of normal appendiceal diameter (~9.5 mm) 31,32
wall thickening (>3 mm) and enhancement
thickening of the cecal apex: cecal bar sign, arrowhead sign
intraluminal fluid depth >2.6 mm in a dilated (>6 mm) appendix without periappendiceal inflammation 29
thickening of the lateroconal fascia or mesoappendix
phlegmon (inflammatory mass)
focal wall non-enhancement representing necrosis (gangrenous appendicitis) and a precursor to perforation
Less specific signs may be associated with appendicitis:
periappendiceal reactive nodal enlargement
MRI is recommended as the second-line modality for suspected acute appendicitis in pregnant patients, where available 14,15. Protocols vary widely, but most include imaging in three planes with a rapidly acquired sequence with T2 weighting, and some include T2 fat-suppressed imaging. MRI findings mirror those of other modalities, with luminal distension and widening, wall thickening, and periappendiceal free fluid.
Treatment and prognosis
Treatment is appendectomy, which can be performed either open or laparoscopically 6. Mortality from simple appendicitis is approximately 0.1% but is as high as 5% in perforation with generalized peritonitis 6.
In ~30% of cases where the appendix has become gangrenous and perforated, initial nonoperative management is preferred provided the patient is stable. In this situation, radiologists have a therapeutic role to play with percutaneous CT- or US-guided drainages of periappendiceal abscess.
Recognized complications include 6:
perforation: in 10-20% of cases 21
most specifically suggested by appendiceal abscess or extraluminal gas, but commonly also seen as periappendiceal phlegmon and fluid 20
generalized peritonitis due to free perforation
pylephlebitis: infective thrombophlebitis of the portal circulation
When a complication occurs, it is said to be "complicated appendicitis".
Clinically, the most common differential is that of mesenteric adenitis, which can be differentiated by the identification of a normal appendix and enlarged mesenteric lymph nodes.
The imaging differential includes:
inflammatory bowel disease, especially Crohn disease, which may affect the appendix
other causes of terminal ileitis
acute epiploic appendagitis
isolated appendiceal submucosal lipomatosis 26
Valentino syndrome (from perforated peptic ulcer)
enlarged normal appendix as almost 50% of asymptomatic patients can have an appendix diameter greater than 6 mm on CT 13
on CT, identify first the ileocecal valve, which usually has fatty lips, and then look for the appendix more inferiorly on the same side
>6 mm outer diameter is a reliable measurement to characterize appendicitis in all imaging modalities
inflammation may be initially limited to the distal end of the appendix (tip appendicitis). It is crucial (particularly with US) to completely evaluate the appendix, and consider further assessment with cross-sectional imaging if it is only partially visualized, but the patient is clinically suspicious
prior appendectomy does not completely rule out a recurrent stump appendicitis, the risk of which is significant if the appendiceal remnant is greater than 5 mm
appendiceal endometriosis is not uncommon, affecting 4-22% of patients with endometriosis, and is a challenging diagnosis on imaging. Nodular, inhomogeneous appendiceal thickening combined with non-specific, often cyclical symptoms can be hints of this condition 23
- 1. Ralph Weissleder. Primer of Diagnostic Imaging. (2007) ISBN: 9780323040686 - Google Books
- 2. Callahan M, Rodriguez D, Taylor G. CT of Appendicitis in Children. Radiology. 2002;224(2):325-32. doi:10.1148/radiol.2242010998 - Pubmed
- 3. Cotton D, Vinson D, Vazquez-Benitez G et al. Validation of the Pediatric Appendicitis Risk Calculator (PARC) in a Community Emergency Department Setting. Ann Emerg Med. 2019;74(4):471-80. doi:10.1016/j.annemergmed.2019.04.023 - Pubmed
- 4. Pereira J, Sirlin C, Pinto P, Jeffrey R, Stella D, Casola G. Disproportionate Fat Stranding: A Helpful CT Sign in Patients with Acute Abdominal Pain. Radiographics. 2004;24(3):703-15. doi:10.1148/rg.243035084 - Pubmed
- 5. Puylaert J. Acute Appendicitis: US Evaluation Using Graded Compression. Radiology. 1986;158(2):355-60. doi:10.1148/radiology.158.2.2934762 - Pubmed
- 6. Gerard M. Doherty, Lawrence W. Way. Current Surgical Diagnosis & Treatment. (2006) ISBN: 007142315X - Google Books
- 7. Pinto Leite N, Pereira J, Cunha R, Pinto P, Sirlin C. CT Evaluation of Appendicitis and Its Complications: Imaging Techniques and Key Diagnostic Findings. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2005;185(2):406-17. doi:10.2214/ajr.185.2.01850406 - Pubmed
- 8. Helga Fritsch, Wolfgang Kühnel. Color Atlas of Human Anatomy. (2008) ISBN: 9783135334059 - Google Books
- 9. Byas Deb Ghosh. Human Anatomy for Students. (2007) ISBN: 9788180618666 - Google Books
- 10. Chang S, Jeffrey R, Olcott E. Three-Step Sequential Positioning Algorithm During Sonographic Evaluation for Appendicitis Increases Appendiceal Visualization Rate and Reduces CT Use. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2014;203(5):1006-12. doi:10.2214/ajr.13.12334
- 11. Noguchi T, Yoshimitsu K, Yoshida M. Periappendiceal Hyperechoic Structure on Sonography: A Sign of Severe Appendicitis. J Ultrasound Med. 2005;24(3):323-7; quiz 328. doi:10.7863/jum.2005.24.3.323 - Pubmed
- 12. Anderson S, Soto J, Lucey B et al. Abdominal 64-MDCT for Suspected Appendicitis: The Use of Oral and IV Contrast Material Versus IV Contrast Material Only. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2009;193(5):1282-8. doi:10.2214/ajr.09.2336
- 13. Martin L. Gunn. Pearls and Pitfalls in Emergency Radiology. (2013) ISBN: 9781139619899 - Google Books
- 14. Wang P, Chong S, Kielar A et al. Imaging of Pregnant and Lactating Patients: Part 2, Evidence-Based Review and Recommendations. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2012;198(4):785-92. doi:10.2214/ajr.11.8223
- 15. Smith M, Katz D, Lalani T et al. ACR Appropriateness Criteria® Right Lower Quadrant Pain—Suspected Appendicitis. Ultrasound Quarterly. 2015;31(2):85-91. doi:10.1097/ruq.0000000000000118
- 16. Shin L, Jeffrey R, Berry G, Olcott E. Spectral Doppler Waveforms for Diagnosis of Appendicitis: Potential Utility of Point Peak Systolic Velocity and Resistive Index Values. Radiology. 2017;285(3):990-8. doi:10.1148/radiol.2017162251 - Pubmed
- 17. Gaitini D, Beck-Razi N, Mor-Yosef D et al. Diagnosing Acute Appendicitis in Adults: Accuracy of Color Doppler Sonography and MDCT Compared with Surgery and Clinical Follow-Up. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2008;190(5):1300-6. doi:10.2214/ajr.07.2955
- 18. James A. Connolly, Anthony J. Dean, Beatrice Hoffmann et al. Emergency Point-Of-Care Ultrasound. (2017) ISBN: 9780470657577 - Google Books
- 19. Lim H, Lee W, Kim T, Namgung S, Lee S, Lim J. Appendicitis: Usefulness of Color Doppler US. Radiology. 1996;201(1):221-5. doi:10.1148/radiology.201.1.8816547 - Pubmed
- 20. Avanesov M, Wiese N, Karul M et al. Diagnostic Prediction of Complicated Appendicitis by Combined Clinical and Radiological Appendicitis Severity Index (APSI). Eur Radiol. 2018;28(9):3601-10. doi:10.1007/s00330-018-5339-9 - Pubmed
- 21. Andersson R, Hugander A, Thulin A. Diagnostic Accuracy and Perforation Rate in Appendicitis: Association with Age and Sex of the Patient and with Appendicectomy Rate. Eur J Surg. 1992;158(1):37-41. - Pubmed
- 22. Ball W & Privitera A. Subhepatic Appendicitis: A Diagnostic Dilemma. BMJ Case Rep. 2013;2013(apr18 1):bcr2013009454. doi:10.1136/bcr-2013-009454 - Pubmed
- 23. Monsonis B, Mandoul C, Millet I, Taourel P. Imaging of Appendicitis: Tips and Tricks. Eur J Radiol. 2020;130:109165. doi:10.1016/j.ejrad.2020.109165 - Pubmed
- 24. Petroianu A & Alberti L. Accuracy of the New Radiographic Sign of Fecal Loading in the Cecum for Differential Diagnosis of Acute Appendicitis in Comparison with Other Inflammatory Diseases of Right Abdomen: A Prospective Study. J Med Life. 2012;5(1):85-91. PMC3307086 - Pubmed
- 25. Checkoff J, Wechsler R, Nazarian L. Chronic Inflammatory Appendiceal Conditions That Mimic Acute Appendicitis on Helical CT. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2002;179(3):731-4. doi:10.2214/ajr.179.3.1790731 - Pubmed
- 26. Şanlı Ş, Sasani H, Darıcı E, Bakır B. Isolated Submucosal Lipomatosis of Appendix Mimicking Acute Appendicitis: Computed Tomography Findings. Acta Med Anatol. 2014;3(X-X). doi:10.15824/actamedica.35025
- 27. Rettenbacher T, Hollerweger A, Macheiner P et al. Outer Diameter of the Vermiform Appendix as a Sign of Acute Appendicitis: Evaluation at US. Radiology. 2001;218(3):757-62. doi:10.1148/radiology.218.3.r01fe20757 - Pubmed
- 28. Trout A, Towbin A, Zhang B. Journal Club: The Pediatric Appendix: Defining Normal. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2014;202(5):936-45. doi:10.2214/AJR.13.11030 - Pubmed
- 29. Moteki T & Horikoshi H. New CT Criterion for Acute Appendicitis: Maximum Depth of Intraluminal Appendiceal Fluid. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2007;188(5):1313-9. doi:10.2214/AJR.06.1180 - Pubmed
- 30. Ives E, Sung S, McCue P, Durrani H, Halpern E. Independent Predictors of Acute Appendicitis on CT with Pathologic Correlation. Acad Radiol. 2008;15(8):996-1003. doi:10.1016/j.acra.2008.02.009 - Pubmed
- 31. Willekens I, Peeters E, De Maeseneer M, de Mey J. The Normal Appendix on CT: Does Size Matter? PLoS One. 2014;9(5):e96476. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0096476 - Pubmed
- 32. Orscheln E & Trout A. Appendiceal Diameter: CT Versus Sonographic Measurements. Pediatr Radiol. 2016;46(3):316-21. doi:10.1007/s00247-015-3491-9 - Pubmed
- 33. Cho J, Akers M, Siavoshi M, Gress T, Thompson E. Features on Computed Tomography That Correlate With Acute Appendicitis. Am Surg. 2022;:31348211054076. doi:10.1177/00031348211054076 - Pubmed
- 34. Orscheln E & Trout A. Appendiceal Diameter: CT Versus Sonographic Measurements. Pediatr Radiol. 2016;46(3):316-21. doi:10.1007/s00247-015-3491-9 - Pubmed