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7 Essential Facts About the Pelvis

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The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it’s the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don’t know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.

The pelvis, which crooner Elvis was famous for thrusting around in ways that raised eyebrows, is not actually a single body part but a term that refers to a collection of bones, muscles and organs below the waist. We spoke to Katherine Gillogley, department chair of obstetrics and gynecology with Mercy Medical Group in Sacramento, California, for these seven facts about the pelvis.

1. SO WHAT IS THE PELVIS, EXACTLY?

"The pelvis refers to the lower abdominal area in both men and women," Gillogley says. "An important function of the pelvis region is to protect organs used for digestion and reproduction, though all its functions are crucial," she says. It protects the bladder, both large and small intestines, and male and female reproductive organs. Another key role is to support the hip joints.

2. THE PELVIC BONES FORM A BASIN.

Four bones come together to form a bowl-like shape, or basin: the two hip bones, the sacrum (the triangle-shaped bone at the low back) and the coccyx (also known as the tailbone).

3. YOUR PELVIC FLOOR IS LIKE A TRAMPOLINE.

At the bottom of the pelvis lies your pelvic floor. You don't have to worry about sweeping it, but you might want to do Kegel exercises to keep it strong. The pelvic floor is like a "mini-trampoline made of firm muscle," according the Continence Foundation of Australia. Just like a trampoline, the pelvic floor is flexible and can move up and down. It also creates a surface (floor) for the pelvic organs to lie upon: the bladder, uterus, and bowels. It has holes, too, for vagina, urethra, and anus to pass through.

4. IT PLAYS A KEY PART IN WALKING.

Anyone who has ever broken a pelvic bone or pulled a pelvic muscle will know just how key a role the pelvis plays in such functions as walking and standing. "The pelvis also acts as a solid foundation for the attachment of the spinal column and legs," says Gillogley.

5. THE FEMALE PELVIS STARTS OUT LARGER, BUT NARROWS OVER TIME.

Gillogley says that the female pelvis "tends to be larger and wider" than the male, most likely to accommodate a baby during pregnancy and to make childbirth possible. However, women's pelvises narrow as they age, suggesting that they start out wider to accommodate childbearing and then shift when that is no longer necessary. A shifting pelvis shape is thought to be a key part of our evolutionary history, as it changed as when we began walking upright.    

6. PREGNANCY CHANGES THE PELVIS FOREVER.

During pregnancy the body secretes a hormone known as relaxin to help the body accommodate the growing baby and soften the cervix. However, what happens is, "the joints between the pelvic bones actually loosen and slightly separate during pregnancy and childbirth," Gillogley says. Sometimes, however, relaxin can make the joints too loose, causing a painful syndrome known as symphysis pubis dysfunction (SPD), causing the pelvic joint to become unstable, causing pain and weakness in the pelvis, perineum and even upper thighs during walking and other activities. Many women with the condition have to wear a pelvic belt. It usually resolves after pregnancy is over, though physical therapy may be necessary.

7. IT'S ACCIDENT PRONE.

According to the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma, about 8 to 9 percent of blunt trauma includes pelvic injury, Gillogley says. "These accidents include falls, motor vehicle crashes, bicycle accidents, and pedestrians being struck by moving vehicles. With these serious injuries, pelvic bones can fracture or dislocate and sometimes bladder injury even occurs." So take care with your pelvis—in worse-case scenarios, breaks of the pelvic bones can require pins, rods, and surgery to fix.

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Pierluigi Luceri, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Two Human Toes Were Stolen From an Anatomy Exhibit
Pierluigi Luceri, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Pierluigi Luceri, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A 28-year-old New Zealand man walked into an anatomy exhibition with 10 toes and walked out with 12. We don't know why or how he did it, but the man stole two human toes from a Body Worlds display in Auckland last month, The New Zealand Herald reports.

The unnamed man appeared in court Monday and pleaded guilty to improperly interfering with the corpse "of an unknown person" and purloining two toes, which alone are valued at about $3800. The motivation for the human remains heist wasn't stated. (Fulfilling a dare seems a likely explanation, or maybe he's just a fan of The Big Lebowski.)

Whatever the reason may be, the story has a happy ending, at least: The digits have since been returned to their rightful place in the "Vital" exhibit, which explores the human body in motion. "Vital," which will remain open in Auckland until July 13, is one of several traveling exhibitions curated by Body Worlds. Two other Body Worlds exhibits are currently on view in the U.S., including "RX" (showcasing the effects of disease) in Toledo, Ohio, and "Animal Inside Out" (an "anatomical safari") in Richmond, Virginia.

The bodies, all of which are donated for exhibition purposes, are preserved via plastination, a process that "replaces bodily fluids and soluble fat in specimens with fluid plastics that harden after vacuum-forced impregnation," according to the Body Worlds website. More than 16,000 people around the world have signed up to donate their bodies after their deaths.

[h/t The New Zealand Herald]

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Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
11 Facts About the Appendix
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock

Despite some 500 years of study, the appendix might be one of the least understood structures in the human body. Here's what we know about this mysterious organ.

1. THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS CALLED IT THE "WORM" OF THE BOWEL.

The human appendix is small, tube-shaped, and squishy, giving ancient Egyptians, who encountered it when preparing bodies for funerary rites, the impression of a worm. Even today, some medical texts refer to the organ as vermiform—Latin for "worm-like."

2. THE APPENDIX SHOWS UP IN LEONARDO DA VINCI’S DRAWINGS.

The earliest description of a human appendix was written by the Renaissance physician-anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi in 1521. But before that, Leonardo da Vinci is believed to drawn the first depiction of the organ in his anatomical drawings in 1492. Leonardo claimed to have dissected 30 human corpses in his effort to understand the way the body worked from mechanical and physiological perspectives.

3. IT'S ABOUT THE SIZE OF A PINKY FINGER.

The appendix is a small pouch connected to the cecum—the beginning of the large intestine in the lower right-hand corner of your abdomen. The cecum’s job is to receive undigested food from the small intestine, absorb fluids and salts that remain after food is digested, and mix them with mucus for easier elimination; according to Mohamad Abouzeid, M.D., assistant professor and attending surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, the cecum and appendix have similar tissue structures.

4. CHARLES DARWIN THOUGHT IT WAS A VESTIGIAL ORGAN …

The appendix has an ill-deserved reputation as a vestigial organ—meaning that it allegedly evolved without a detectable function—and we can blame Charles Darwin for that. In the mid-19th century, the appendix had been identified only in humans and great apes. Darwin thought that our earlier ancestors ate mostly plants, and thus needed a large cecum in which to break down the tough fibers. He hypothesized that over time, apes and humans evolved to eat a more varied and easier-to-digest diet, and the cecum shrank accordingly. The appendix itself, Darwin believed, emerged from the folds of the wizened cecum without its own special purpose.

5. … BUT THE APPENDIX PROBABLY EVOLVED TO HELP IMMUNE FUNCTION.

The proximity and tissue similarities between the cecum and appendix suggest that the latter plays a part in the digestive process. But there’s one noticeable difference in the appendix that you can see only under a microscope. “[The appendix] has a high concentration of the immune cells within its walls,” Abouzeid tells Mental Floss.

Recent research into the appendix's connection to the immune system has suggested a few theories. In a 2015 study in Nature Immunology, Australian researchers discovered that a type of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) proliferate in the appendix and seem to encourage the repopulation of symbiotic bacteria in the gut. This action may help the gut recover from infections, which tend to wipe out fluids, nutrients, and good bacteria.

For a 2013 study examining the evolutionary rationale for the appendix in mammal species, researchers at Midwestern University and Duke University Medical Center concluded that the organ evolved at least 32 times among different lineages, but not in response to dietary or environmental factors.

The same researchers analyzed 533 mammal species for a 2017 study and found that those with appendices had more lymphatic (immune) tissue in the cecum. That suggests that the nearby appendix could serve as "a secondary immune organ," the researchers said in a statement. "Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a 'safe house' for helpful gut bacteria." This good bacteria may help to replenish healthy flora in the gut after infection or illness.

6. ABOUT 7 PERCENT OF AMERICANS WILL GET APPENDICITIS DURING THEIR LIFETIMES.

For such a tiny organ, the appendix gets infected easily. According to Abouzeid, appendicitis occurs when the appendix gets plugged by hardened feces (called a fecalith or appendicolith), too much mucus, or the buildup of immune cells after a viral or bacterial infection. In the United States, the lifetime risk of getting appendicitis is one in 15, and incidence in newly developed countries is rising. It's most common in young adults, and most dangerous in the elderly.

When infected, the appendix swells up as pus fills its interior cavity. It can grow several times larger than its average 3-inch size: One inflamed appendix removed from a British man in 2004 measured just over 8 inches, while another specimen, reported in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, measured 8.6 inches. People with appendicitis might feel generalized pain around the bellybutton that localizes on the right side of the abdomen, and experience nausea or vomiting, fever, or body aches. Some people also get diarrhea.

7. APPENDECTOMIES ARE ALMOST 100 PERCENT EFFECTIVE FOR TREATING APPENDICITIS.

Treatment for appendicitis can go two ways: appendectomy, a.k.a. surgical removal of the appendix, or a first line of antibiotics to treat the underlying infection. Appendectomies are more than 99 percent effective against recurring infection, since the organ itself is removed. (There have been cases of "stump appendicitis," where an incompletely removed appendix becomes infected, which often require further surgery.)

Studies show that antibiotics produce about a 72 percent initial success rate. “However, if you follow these patients out for about a year, they often get recurrent appendicitis,” Abouzeid says. One 2017 study in the World Journal of Surgery followed 710 appendicitis patients for a year after antibiotic treatment and found a 26.5 percent recurrence rate for subsequent infections.

8. AN INFECTED APPENDIX DOESN’T ACTUALLY BURST.

You might imagine a ruptured appendix, known formally as a perforation, being akin to the "chestbuster" scene in Alien. Abouzeid says it's not quite that dramatic, though it can be dangerous. When the appendix gets clogged, pressure builds inside the cavity of the appendix, called the lumen. That chokes off blood supply to certain tissues. “The tissue dies off and falls apart, and you get perforation,” Abouzeid says. But rather than exploding, the organ leaks fluids that can infect other tissues.

A burst appendix is a medical emergency. Sometimes the body can contain the infection in an abscess, Abouzeid says, which may be identified through CT scans or X-rays and treated with IV antibiotics. But if the infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the abdomen, a serious condition called peritonitis. At that point, the infection can become life-threatening.

9. SURGEONS CAN REMOVE AN APPENDIX THROUGH A TINY INCISION.

In 1894, Charles McBurney, a surgeon at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, popularized an open-cavity, muscle-splitting technique [PDF] to remove an infected appendix, which is now called an open appendectomy. Surgeons continued to use McBurney's method until the advent of laparoscopic surgery, a less invasive method in which the doctor makes small cuts in the patient's abdomen and threads a thin tube with a camera and surgical tools into the incisions. The appendix is removed through one of those incisions, which are usually less than an inch in length.

The first laparoscopic appendectomies were performed by German physician Kurt Semm in the early 1980s. Since then, laparoscopic appendectomies have become the standard treatment for uncomplicated appendicitis. For more serious infections, open appendectomies are still performed.

10. AN APPENDIX ONCE POSTPONED A ROYAL CORONATION.

When the future King Edward VII of Great Britain came down with appendicitis (or "perityphlitis," as it was called back then) in June 1902, mortality rates for the disease were as high as 26 percent. It was about two weeks before his scheduled coronation on June 26, 1902, and Edward resisted having an appendectomy, which was then a relatively new procedure. But surgeon and appendicitis expert Frederick Treves made clear that Edward would probably die without it. Treves drained Edward's infected abscess, without removing the organ, at Buckingham Palace; Edward recovered and was crowned on August 9, 1902.

11. THE WORLD'S LONGEST APPENDIX MEASURED MORE THAN 10 INCHES.

On August 26, 2006, during an autopsy at a Zagreb, Croatia hospital, surgeons obtained a 10.24-inch appendix from 72-year-old Safranco August. The deceased currently holds the Guinness World Record for "largest appendix removed."

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