Complicated Appendicitis During Pregnancy: Immediate Surgery May Be Best

Lucy Hicks

April 18, 2022

Pregnant women who underwent immediate surgery to treat a ruptured or abscessed appendix had lower risk of infectious complications compared with those whose complicated appendicitis was managed without surgery, according to new research.

Most cases that began with nonoperative management eventually required surgery, and the operative delay was associated with an increased risk of preterm labor, preterm delivery, and abortion.

Dr Kazuhide Matsushima

"Our study findings may help to define the preferred management strategy in complicated appendicitis during pregnancy to be immediate operation," Kazuhide Matsushima, MD, an assistant professor of clinical surgery at the Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles, and colleagues wrote.

The retrospective study was published April 15 in JAMA Network Open.

While acute appendicitis is relatively rare during pregnancy, it is the most common nonobstetric emergency in pregnant women, Matsushima said. This condition occurs in an estimated 1 in 700 to 1 in 1500 pregnancies, and some data suggest that pregnant women are at higher risk for perforation and other forms of complicated appendicitis.

National guidelines support appendectomy as the first-line treatment for pregnant women with acute uncomplicated appendicitis, but there is no clear guidance on the best treatment approach for managing complicated appendicitis in this population, the authors note.

To better understand how surgical and nonoperational interventions affected outcomes, investigators analyzed data from the National Inpatient Sample from January 2003 to September 2015 to identify pregnant women with complicated appendicitis. The condition was defined as "acute appendicitis with generalized peritonitis" and "acute appendicitis with peritoneal abscess." Patients were excluded if they had complications such as ectopic pregnancy and hydatidiform mole.

Investigators split the patients into three groups: those who underwent immediate operation for complicated appendicitis, those whose appendicitis was successfully managed without surgery, and those in whom nonoperative management of their condition failed, resulting in delayed surgery. Failed nonoperative management was defined as at least one day of nonoperative management followed by a laparoscopic or open appendectomy.

Of the 8087 pregnant women identified during the study with complicated appendicitis, 55.5% underwent immediate appendectomy, 11.8% were successfully treated without surgical intervention, and 32.7% had delayed operations after initial failed nonoperative management. There was no significant difference in preterm delivery, preterm labor, or abortion between the immediate operative and successful nonoperative groups; however, the successful nonoperative group was more than twice as likely to experience premature rupture of membranes (odds ratio [OR], 2.77; P = .03). Patients successfully treated without surgery also were at higher risk for infections such as amniotic infection (OR, 4.35; P < .001), pneumonia (OR, 2.52; P < .001), and sepsis (OR, 1.52; P = .01) compared with patients who underwent immediate operation.

Patients who had delayed surgery were 45% more likely to experience preterm delivery, preterm labor, or abortion (OR, 1.45; P < .001) compared with the immediate surgery group. The delayed surgery group was also at higher risk for antepartum hemorrhage (OR, 1.56; P = .03) and premature rupture of membranes (OR, 3.44; P = .002). They were more than four times as likely to have amniotic infection (OR, 4.74; < .001), twice as likely to contract pneumonia (OR, 2.01; P < .001), and 58% more likely to develop sepsis (OR, 1.58; P < .001) compared with the immediate surgery group. The researchers calculated that every day surgery was delayed, the risk of preterm delivery, preterm labor, and abortion rose by 23% (OR, 1.23; P < .001).

Delayed surgery and successful nonoperative management were also associated with higher hospital charges and longer hospital stays.

Because this was a retrospective study, there are some limitations to the findings, Matsushima said, and therefore should not be used to justify changing standards of care; however, it does give more information on the risks associated with different interventions. "It's very important to have a discussion with the patient and make a shared decision," he told Medscape Medical News, "because each option has significant risks and benefits."

Because the data was from a database, he added, the research team was not able to see if outcomes from immediate surgery, nonoperative management, and delayed surgery differed in each trimester.

Dr Kenneth Sharp

Kenneth W. Sharp, MD, a professor of surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, agreed that the study does have limitations, such as lack of information on how complicated appendicitis was identified and diagnosed; however, the study does provide guidance to surgeons in a surgical area with "very sparse literature," he told Medscape. Sharp is also a regent from the American College of Surgeons, which arranged the interview.

"Especially with these very complicated patients, it was never clear what to do," he said. "With the recent studies showing that treatment of appendicitis with antibiotics works for a large number of people, people start extrapolating [those findings] to complicated appendicitis and they start extrapolating it to pregnant women, none of which the studies were meant to show anything about," he said.

This analysis gives additional information to inform treatment decisions in pregnant women who may be hesitant to undergo this abdominal surgery because of possible complications, like pregnancy loss, he added. "Now, I can say to them that the data would suggest that with your particular complicated appendicitis, we should operate sooner, not later."

Matsushima and Sharp have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

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