Thousands of women in the UK have their appendix removed for no reason, costing the NHS millions of pounds.
Scientists looked at data for more than 5,000 patients in the UK and found around one in five have a healthy appendix removed in error.
The poorly-understood organ, which people can live healthily without, is removed if someone develops appendicitis, which makes it swollen and painful.
In the UK, a quarter of women who have their appendix removed actually have healthy organs, the study found – twice the error rate in men.
The researchers said it could be trickier to pinpoint the cause of abdominal pain in women because it may be caused by gynaecological issues.
And they added that NHS doctors may be so pressured they make rash decisions and misdiagnose emergency patients, raising the risk of unnecessary surgery.
They estimated the cost to the NHS of the unnecessary operations could be almost £14million.
Researchers in Birmingham said thousands of women in the UK have a healthy appendix removed every year because doctors’ methods of spotting those which need removing are unreliable (stock image)
Researchers from the University of Birmingham studied data for 5,345 patients from 154 hospitals in the UK.
They found that for 392 of the 1,957 who had their appendix removed (20 per cent), doctors later discovered the organ had been completely healthy.
In other countries considered in the study – Ireland, Spain, Italy and Portugal – this rate was just six per cent on average.
Among UK women, 28 per cent of all who had their appendix removed did not need the procedure done.
For men, this figure was just 12 per cent – women’s risk was ‘disproportionate’, according to the study, and those aged 16 to 45 were worst affected.
The reason for this was not clear, but the study showed more women are admitted for suspected appendicitis and finding the cause for pain was more complicated.
WHAT IS AN APPENDIX AND DO YOU NEED ONE?
The appendix is a small organ about four inches (10cm) long which is attached to the gut where the large and small intestines join.
Its function is not fully understood. Some think it contains gut bacteria to restore the body back to health after an illness, while others think it is a leftover from evolution.
Surgically removing it does not seem to have any bad effects on the patient, which suggests people don’t actually need them.
Sometimes people can develop appendicitis, a condition in which the organ becomes swollen and intensely painful.
If it becomes infected and bursts it can have potentially life-threatening consequences and appendicitis can cause fever, vomiting and diarrhoea.
The appendix is also susceptible to cancer but tumours in the organ are rare.
‘The possible causes of right sided abdominal pain in women include gynaecological conditions which very commonly cause symptoms that can initially be mistaken as appendicitis,’ study author Dmitri Nepogodiev told MailOnline.
‘In men there are fewer different causes of right sided abdominal pain.’
Mr Nepogodiev predicted that around 5,500 people each year have their appendix removed even though it later turns out to be healthy.
And he said: ‘We don’t have exact figures, but unnecessary hospital admissions and operations for suspected appendicitis will certainly cost the NHS millions of pounds each year.
‘For example, one appendicectomy costs £2,500. Based on an estimate of 5,500 appendicectomies resulting in removal of a normal appendix each year, the total costs of these potentially unnecessary operations would be £13,750,000.’
The Birmingham researchers’ study found that women had a noticeably higher chance of being hospitalised if they had pain similar to that caused by appendicitis.
People with the illness, in which the appendix can burst and cause agony and life-threatening infection, usually feel it in the lower right corner of their torso.
Using data from the study the team estimated that 79,500 patients of both sexes are admitted for suspected appendicitis each year, with 53,000 of them discharged.
Some 26,500 undergo surgery to have the organ removed, Mr Nepogodiev said, but only around a fifth of them really needed it.
He added: ‘It’s possible that because NHS A&E departments are under high pressure they make rapid decisions to admit patients, whereas in the other countries doctors have more time to do tests and scans in the emergency department and this allows them to identify patients who can be discharged from the A&E rather than admitting everyone to hospital.’
The research was published in the British Journal of Surgery.