Context: Evaluation of abdominal pain in children can be difficult. Rapid, accurate diagnosis of appendicitis in children reduces the morbidity of this common cause of pediatric abdominal pain. Clinical evaluation may help identify (1) which children with abdominal pain and a likely diagnosis of appendicitis should undergo immediate surgical consultation for potential appendectomy and (2) which children with equivocal presentations of appendicitis should undergo further diagnostic evaluation.
Objective: To systematically assess the precision and accuracy of symptoms, signs, and basic laboratory test results for evaluating children with possible appendicitis.
Data sources: We searched English-language articles in MEDLINE (January 1966-March 2007) and the Cochrane Database, as well as physical examination textbooks and bibliographies of retrieved articles, yielding 2521 potentially relevant articles.
Study selection: Studies were included if they (1) provided primary data on children aged 18 years or younger in whom the diagnosis of appendicitis was considered; (2) presented medical history data, physical examination findings, or basic laboratory data; and (3) confirmed or excluded appendicitis by surgical pathologic findings, clinical observation, or follow-up. Of 256 full-text articles examined, 42 met inclusion criteria.
Data extraction: Twenty-five of 42 studies were assigned a quality level of 3 or better. Data from these studies were independently extracted by 2 reviewers.
Results: In children with abdominal pain, fever was the single most useful sign associated with appendicitis; a fever increases the likelihood of appendicitis (likelihood ratio [LR], 3.4; 95% confidence interval [CI], 2.4-4.8) and conversely, its absence decreases the chance of appendicitis (LR, 0.32; 95% CI, 0.16-0.64). In select groups of children, in whom the diagnosis of appendicitis is suspected and evaluation undertaken, rebound tenderness triples the odds of appendicitis (summary LR, 3.0; 95% CI, 2.3-3.9), while its absence reduces the likelihood (summary LR, 0.28; 95% CI, 0.14-0.55). Midabdominal pain migrating to the right lower quadrant (LR range, 1.9-3.1) increases the risk of appendicitis more than right lower quadrant pain itself (summary LR, 1.2; 95% CI, 1.0-1.5). A white blood cell count of less than 10,000/microL decreases the likelihood of appendicitis (summary LR, 0.22; 95% CI, 0.17-0.30), as does an absolute neutrophil count of 6750/microL or lower (LR, 0.06; 95% CI, 0.03-0.16). Symptoms and signs are most useful in combination, particularly for identifying children who do not require further evaluation or intervention.
Conclusions: Although the clinical examination does not establish a diagnosis of appendicitis with certainty, it is useful in determining which children with abdominal pain warrant immediate surgical evaluation for consideration of appendectomy and which children may warrant further diagnostic evaluation. More child-specific, age-stratified data are needed to improve the utility of the clinical examination for diagnosing appendicitis in children.