Health Team

New study shows promise of treating appendicitis with antibiotics, not surgery

Posted December 17, 2015 5:00 p.m. EST
Updated December 18, 2015 7:11 a.m. EST

— When it comes to appendicitis, patients almost always undergo surgery to remove the appendix within hours of being diagnosed.

In children alone, there are 70,000 appendectomies a year -- or about 200 per day.

As WRAL's Dr. Allen Mask explains, a new study shows surgery is not always necessary.

During the holiday break a couple years ago, Aria Gibson was set to star in a school play, and her parents had booked a surprise trip to Disney, when, suddenly, they had to rush Aria to the hospital.

"They checked her out and did an ultrasound," said Aubrey Gibson, Aria's mom. "And they told us that she did have appendicitis."

Normally, that means emergency surgery within hours. Recovery from the surgery can take weeks.

Aria was at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where a unique study was looking at skipping surgery and treating appendicitis only with antibiotics.

"More than 75 percent of kids who chose antibiotics did not have to have surgery," said Dr. Pete Minneci of Nationwide Children's Hospital.

Whether it's surgery or antibiotics, Minneci and Dr. Kate Deans said parents need to pick the method that best suits their family.

"It's really a matter of aligning your preferences, your values, your bias, what you think is most important to you, with the therapy that's best for you and your family," Deans said.

If the risks of surgery can be mitigated, Minneci said, the antibiotics could be worth it.

"If we don't have to have surgery, if they don't have to be in pain, if we don't have to have the risk of surgery or anesthesia, it was worth a try," Minneci said.

It's been two years since Aria's bout with appendicitis. She might be too young to appreciate the novel approach that doctors took to treat her, but her parents will never forget the experiences they shared as a result.

"It was amazing," Aubrey Gibson said. "She was able to do her musical, and then we were able to go to Disney World with no problems, and we were really thankful that that was an option for us."

As for Aria, she said the treatment was a success.

"I feel great," Aria Gibson said. "There's nothing -- I haven't experienced anything else. I haven't -- It hasn't hurt or anything."

"The gold standard for treating appendicitis is surgery," said Dr. Allen Mask of the WRAL Health Team. "Approximately 29 percent of the children treated with antibiotics alone had to have surgery within one year. Have a thorough discussion with your surgeon about the better of these two options."

Along with safer treatment, the hospital's study showed the "medication first" approach saved 20 percent in healthcare costs compared to surgery.