Having a horrible stomach ache or mysterious abdominal pain is never fun. And it’s even less fun when you’re sitting there curled up in a ball mildly panicking and Googling your symptoms, unsure if it’s just horrible gas, nasty period cramps, a bout of food poisoning, or something more severe—like appendicitis.
Appendicitis just means inflammation of the appendix, which is “a vestigial, meaning not useful, cone-shaped organ that we have hanging off the right side of the colon,” Kyle Staller, M.D., M.P.H., a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells SELF. The cause of appendicitis isn't always clear. In many cases, the appendix gets clogged up, like with a fecalith (a hard mass of poop), causing it to become swollen and infected, Dr. Staller explains.
An infected appendix is notoriously painful and uncomfortable—and it also can turn into a potentially life-threatening medical emergency if you don’t treat it quickly.
The tell-tale symptoms of appendicitis include pain on the right side of the lower abdomen (that typically feels worse if you move around), nausea, bloating, and possibly a fever and/or vomiting, according to the Mayo Clinic.
You may not have that textbook, localized pain off the bat, however. “The gut nerves really only tell you a general area of where something is wrong,” Dr. Staller explains. “When something’s angry in that area where your appendix is, people actually feel discomfort around their belly button.”
Generally, a person will first feel sick and notice that pain near the belly button—but these initial symptoms may be tough to distinguish from a typical stomach ache, so people often wait it out, Dr. Staller says. Then, as the appendix continues to swell, it will start to irritate the wall of the abdomen, which is when the pain will usually migrate down to the lower part of the abdomen where the appendix is located, and your body will pretty much start telling you, “S.O.S.!”
If your appendix ruptures, you might actually feel a sensation of relief. “Once in a while we see this in the emergency room. A patient will come to us in excruciating pain, and all of a sudden out of nowhere, the symptoms go away,” Michael Klein, M.D., trauma surgeon and assistant professor of surgery at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF. “Usually this is an indication to the care team that your appendix has ruptured. So although a patient with a ruptured appendix might feel relief and think, ‘Oh, maybe this was a bad cramp,’ the physician will still want to confirm you don’t have untreated appendicitis.”
A ruptured appendix is a potentially life-threatening complication of appendicitis—which is why you want to rule out appendicitis as quickly as possible, before this happens. “When it ruptures it can cause very serious infections,” Dr. Klein says. “You never can predict when an infected appendix is going to rupture, so surgically removing the appendix before it ruptures is the best form of treatment.” (Patients do respond to antibiotics in many appendicitis cases, Dr. Staller notes, but there’s always the chance of recurrence and potential complications down the line if you do delay surgery.)
The truth is, if you are dealing with appendicitis, you will most likely know. Just ask these 13 people, many of whom went through a bit of hesitation and confusion about their symptoms, but eventually hit a point where they knew they were not dealing with run-of-the-mill stomach pains.
1. “It felt like knives mercilessly carving up my insides.” —Lauren, 25
“A few months ago, I came home from work on a Friday with plans to meet up with friends that evening, and the pain came out of nowhere. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had to cancel my plans because I was curled up in a ball on my bed in the fetal position trying to find an angle to position my body that would give me a moment of reprieve. Nothing worked.
“I had always heard that lower right abdominal pain was the classic sign of an appendicitis, but my pain was a sharp and persistent stabbing below my belly button, before moving to the right. Having suffered ovarian cysts in the past, I also considered that possibility, but again, the placement seemed off. The pain never let up or dulled in the slightest. It felt like knives mercilessly carving up my insides. I couldn't believe how fast I went from feeling absolutely fine to writhing in agonizing pain and crying. I was worried that I was overreacting and being a baby about it. I thought, What if my pain threshold was just low, and this was nothing more than a bad stomach ache?
“So after a good four or so hours of non-stop pain, to the point of tears, I bit the bullet and went to the ER. The last place I wanted to spend my Friday night was in the hospital, especially if it was for nothing, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I was seen within 10 minutes of arriving. Sure enough, they told me I had appendicitis and needed surgery. I had a laparoscopic appendectomy the next morning that took less than an hour to complete. I was released the same day, a few hours later. The whole ordeal took less than 24 hours.”
2. “I was so doubled over in stabbing pain that it took a couple of staff in the ER to ‘uncurl’ me so they could examine me.” —Alena, 43
“I was having breakfast with a friend and had what seemed like a nagging stomach ache. I was 23 at the time. I was never prone to digestive problems, or any health problems at that point, so I figured it would go away. As the day progressed, it got worse. I went to the theater to see a show in the evening with some friends. I was in a lot of pain and mused about going to the hospital until someone suggested it could be gas. By intermission, I simply couldn't sit in a chair anymore with the pain so I went home and straight to bed. I still thought it would pass.
“This sounds ridiculous, but around midnight, my roommate came home and I was lying in my robe on the linoleum kitchen floor to keep cool, because I was sweating with pain, and still I refused his offer to take me to the hospital. Finally, by about 2 A.M., I drove myself to the hospital. I didn't want to wake my roommate to take me or call an ambulance, and I couldn't bear to wait any longer than necessary. I hobbled into the ER and said, ‘I'll be embarrassed if this is gas, but I think something is really wrong.’
“I was so doubled over in stabbing pain that it took a couple of staff in the ER to ‘uncurl’ me so they could examine me. They did an ultrasound and ran some other tests and informed me that I was going in for emergency surgery to remove my appendix. I had just started dating someone new who I really liked at that time. My very naive 23-year-old self said to the surgeon, ‘Can we do it later this week? I have a date tomorrow.’ He laughed out loud and said, ‘You have a date with me!’
“The surgery and the whole experience really pulled the rug out from under me. I had never experienced pain like that. Up until that point, I thought I was in relative control of my body. It was a shock to discover that sometimes, when I least expect it, my body has other plans. I had never been intubated or under general anesthesia, and the pain coming out of major abdominal surgery took my breath away. Even now, 20 years later, I haven't forgotten the experience of becoming a total passenger to my body's limits, and also to modern medicine. It prepared me well for when I gave birth by c-sections though years later.”
3. “At first it would come in waves, then at some point the pain intensified and didn't leave.” —Justin, 25
“I was 18 and going on college trips, deciding which school I wanted to go to. While visiting one of the schools, I came down with a [high] fever and started to feel lightheaded. Later in the night, I started to feel a sharp pain coming from what seemed like my lower stomach. At first it would come in waves, then at some point the pain intensified and didn't leave.
“I was staying in a hotel with my uncle, and I spent the whole night in pain and with a fever. At one point during the night the pain became so intense that I couldn't move. My uncle then inspected my lower stomach and put pressure on different parts of it. We called my other uncle, who was a doctor, and he confirmed that the symptoms sounded like those of appendicitis. We rushed to the hospital where they took me straight to the emergency room for surgery.
“The closest thing I could compare the pain to is the feeling a person gets when they get hit in the testicles. It's a sharp pain that doesn't go away, and it especially hurts when you apply pressure to the appendix area.”
4. “It feels like someone is stabbing you, twisting the knife and going deeper and deeper into your stomach, for days.” —Kendall, 28
“I've had appendicitis four times. Yep, four times. The first time was when I was 26 years old. The back story as to why I've had appendicitis four times is because the first time, my appendix wasn't completely removed. Only a portion was removed, unbeknownst to me until two years later. I had an appendectomy in 2016 in New York City, where my appendix was thought to be completely removed. I had a second appendectomy in Boston in the spring of 2018. Between 2016 and 2018, I was admitted into the hospital two other times too.
“The first time, I woke up one morning with pain that felt like gas bubbles. I tried to do some Downward Dogs to relieve the pressure, but that didn't work. Then, I thought maybe it was just an upset stomach from dinner the night before. I proceeded with my morning, went to work, tried to eat breakfast, but the pain got worse. It became excruciating and was isolated to the lower right side of my abdomen.
“I've never been in labor but I can definitely say appendicitis is the most severe pain I've ever experienced thus far. There's truly nothing like it. The pain is stabbing, aching, sharp and constant all at the same time. It feels like someone is stabbing you, twisting the knife and going deeper and deeper into your stomach, for days.”
5. “I felt the worst pain in my stomach—like someone was stabbing me. I couldn’t move my body.” —Angelique, 24
“Two weeks before my big move-in day for my first year at university, I started to feel excruciating pains in my stomach. I thought they were just cramps. This was particularly interesting because I typically don’t experience cramps when I’m menstruating. So for the next two weeks, I continued to feel debilitating pain without thinking anything of it. This just goes to show you what women go through every month.
“On my move day, I felt the worst pain in my stomach—like someone was stabbing me. I couldn’t move my body. I’m a pretty tough gal, so I wouldn’t let that stop me, and my mom and I were caravanning the seven hours from my hometown to my university. But the pain was so bad that I began to cry as I waited for a red light to turn green. When my mom saw me crying through the rear view mirror, she knew something was wrong, as I rarely cry. So when we arrived on campus, she ordered that I go to the emergency room.
“After three hours of waiting in the ER, the physicians found that my white blood cells were three times higher than normal. They did a CT scan and [determined the issue was] my appendix. They put me under that night, before it burst. [The operation] only took 30 minutes. I was weak for the next month or so and also ordered not to drink alcohol, coffee, or spicy food.”
6. “I looked fine on the outside, but the scans showed a mess internally.” —Heidi, 46
“My case was unusual. I was 42, and in a small town in Turkey along the coast. We had just had lunch—crab pulled from the water—then got on a boat. I thought I had food poisoning. I felt excruciating, sharp pains on my right lower side. As we traveled through Turkey on a bus later in the trip, going over cobblestone roads and bumps was painful. It wasn’t until about two weeks later that I got home and saw a doctor.
“By the time I got home, the pain had gone down to almost nothing, but I knew something wasn’t right—so I pushed doctors to figure out what was wrong. It took about a week of tests before they gave me the CT scan to figure out what happened—and they were shocked when they found a burst appendix. I looked fine on the outside, but the scans showed a mess internally.
“They decided the best route was to give me heavy antibiotics. I was in the hospital for four days, and they released me with two more weeks of antibiotics. About six weeks after the original hospital stint, I went back in to have the abscess and remains of the appendix removed. There was a good bit of scar tissue that had formed from the burst that also had to be removed.”
7. “I felt an intense pain in my lower abdomen, and then it subsided and became more of a dull pain, more in my lower right side.” —Challee, 31
“I just had my appendix removed in June. It was a Saturday afternoon when I felt an intense pain in my lower abdomen, and then it subsided and became more of a dull pain, more in my lower right side. Since I didn’t have other symptoms of appendicitis (e.g. nausea or vomiting) and I was still able to walk, I waited until Monday to go see my doctor.
“After examining me, she sent me straight to the ER. After doing several tests and blood samples, I had emergency surgery at 4 A.M. on Tuesday. I spent the rest of Tuesday in the hospital recovering, and at 6 P.M. they discharged me. I had the surgery laparoscopically, and the recovery time was about two weeks. The recovery wasn’t terrible, as this was my second laparoscopic procedure; I had my gallbladder removed three years prior.”
8. “I thought that maybe I had gone too far during a workout and damaged some muscle.” —Luke, 27
“I had appendicitis when I was 20. The first thing I noticed was that my abs felt really sore, but no other muscles or parts of the body did. I’m an athlete, so if anything, I thought that maybe I had gone too hard during a workout and damaged some muscle. But as time went on, the area of the soreness shrunk and localized. Soreness became pain, and I had difficulty sitting up. I vaguely remember a burning sensation. Of course I turned to the internet, and all my symptoms seemed to line up with appendicitis.
“I was visiting my parents in Toronto at the time and thought I’d sleep it off. After pretty much laying in bed not sleeping because of the pain all night, I woke my dad around 6 A.M. and said that I thought I had appendicitis. We headed to the hospital shortly after and went through all the hoops of being an American navigating Canadian health care.
“Surgery went smoothly, no issues. I have three small incision points, each about an inch wide, and minor scarring. Healing largely required rest, also to let the incisions heal. After a few weeks I was able to run and start moving again, and any post-surgery symptoms wore off relatively soon after. It really wasn’t that bad!”
9. “It felt like there was an inflated balloon in my abdomen—and I had that classic localized, constant, dull, throbbing pain on my lower right side.” —Julia, 27
“Over fall break of my senior year of college, I woke up and needed to start getting ready for work, as my sorority sister was picking me to carpool. But I remember laying in bed with just this feeling of overall malaise. My stomach hurt like I was having gas. I got so nauseous that I threw up laying in my bed. It felt like there was an inflated balloon in my abdomen—and I had that classic localized, constant, dull, throbbing pain on my lower right side. It was more uncomfortable than painful.
“I called mom and she told me to have my friend take me to an urgent care. I walked into urgent care and they sent me over to the ER pretty much right away. You know it must be bad when you get to cut the waiting room line.
“I had to chug this horrendous big gulp of what I would describe as Satan’s piss prior to the CT scan. Shortly after, a surgeon came in and told me I had appendicitis and would be in surgery ASAP. I started crying in fear. I had never been to the ER before or had a surgery like this. Hearing those words was very surreal, especially when you’re without family.
“Recovery was long and uncomfortable. You don’t realize how much you use your core until you have it cut into. It’s the oddest sensation. I honestly can’t describe it, but have you ever eaten so much you literally cannot stand up straight to walk? Seriously, that’s sort of what the recovery felt like. I felt tight and full. Simple things like sitting up from laying down required a friend to help.”
10. “It felt like someone stuck a knife in my side and slowly pushed harder every 30 minutes.” —Alex, 26
“I first noticed slight abdominal pain, almost like gas pains, that started to severely increase. To be honest, I thought it was something I had eaten for lunch, or constipation. But as the pain got worse, it started to align with the horror stories of appendicitis I had heard. It felt like someone stuck a knife in my side and slowly pushed harder every 30 minutes. After about five hours of pain I realized it wasn't going away and I needed to seek medical care ASAP. Of course looking back on it, I'm realizing I probably waited way too long.
“I learned I did have appendicitis, and my appendix ruptured. But based on my doctor’s recommendation, I did not have my appendix removed once it was ruptured. Big mistake. I didn't ask as many questions as I should have. I was treated in the hospital for three days until I was cleared to leave. Then, I had outpatient surgery two weeks later. The laparoscopy was seamless, and, years later, I can barely see any visible evidence that this happened.
“My advice would be, when you feel discomfort in your abdomen for more than an hour, I would seek medical assistance quickly. Alert your friends and family, and get to the emergency room (not a local walk-in clinic) ASAP. Also, you can never ask the doctor too many questions.”
11. “At first it felt like indigestion. But it increased rather drastically, and I got to a point where I couldn’t even stand up.” —Sami, 26
“The pain was super erratic, and at first it felt like indigestion. But it increased rather drastically, and I got to a point where I couldn’t even stand up. I had a complete loss of appetite and was feeling very fatigued. I was 22 and in college at the time, and luckily my dad is a doctor. When the pain started to become more severe I FaceTimed him. He had me poke my stomach in different spots, and as soon as I pointed to the pain in my lower abdominal area, he told me I needed to go to the hospital immediately.
“When I was in the hospital and they were running tests, the pain was so bad that they had to put me on a morphine drip. During the procedure, they also noticed that I had an ovarian cyst that had ruptured around the same time.
“The scarring was very minimal, and the healing process was fine. It definitely felt like my stomach was tight because of the surgery and scars, but the stitches dissolved, so that was easy.”
12. “It was genuinely the worst pain I've ever felt in my life—it hurt to breathe, walk, even speak.” —Eliza, 25
“I had been having stomach issues for a few years. I had also been in Thailand for two weeks, and my diet was super out of whack and I was on my period. So I thought I was either experiencing the worst cramps of my life or that I had caught a virus while I was away.
“After returning from Thailand, I went to a black tie gala with my family and stayed seated while my family danced and enjoyed the night. When everyone asked if I was feeling alright, I just chalked it up to jet lag. The following morning, my mom heard me downstairs hysterically crying in the family room and unable to move. I described the pain, and my dad eventually rushed me to the hospital.
“It felt like someone was trying to stab me from the inside of my stomach. It was genuinely the worst pain I've ever felt in my life—it hurt to breathe, walk, even speak. Before my surgery, I asked a billion questions: How many of these procedures had they done? How many years had they been doing this? Had they ever killed someone? At this point my anxiety was really at the forefront.
“Once I was in the recovery area of the hospital and awake, the surgeon came in to let me know that I had been dealing with a recurrent appendicitis, and I may have been having flare-ups for the last couple of years.”
13. “I felt intense waves of nausea, like I really needed to throw up, but nothing was happening.” —Angelina, 26
“I had appendicitis when I was 22. I remember that I just could not fall asleep because I was so nauseous. I was tossing and turning for hours as the nausea got worse and worse. I first thought it was a hangover as I was laying there trying to go to sleep (I had gone out drinking that night, oops). As the nauseous feeling got worse, I knew something worse was going on because it was like nothing I ever felt before. I started having pain in the lower right side of my abdomen specifically—it was sensitive to the touch—and I was so nauseous but I wasn't vomiting.
“I had been alternating between laying in my bed and on the bathroom floor. I felt intense waves of nausea, like I really needed to throw up but nothing was happening. So I started looking up symptoms online. I know it's usually bad to self-diagnose, but at around 5 A.M. I just knew it couldn't be anything else, since my symptoms fit all the descriptions of appendicitis online so closely.
“The surgery was smooth, and my recovery took almost no time at all. The worst part of it was that you have certain restrictions on what you can eat, including fruits and vegetables. Someone sent me a get well gift of Shari's Berries, chocolate covered, and I couldn't eat them.”
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.