The spleen has a few vital functions:
- Its primary job is to filter or remove "junk" from the bloodstream. It does so by getting rid of cellular waste and removing old, malformed, or damaged blood cells.
- The spleen contains infection-fighting white blood cells, called lymphocytes, as well as antibodies that help the body combat invading germs in the blood including bacteria or viruses. This makes the organ crucial for our immune system response.
- The spleen affects the level of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.
- It maintains the levels of fluid in your body.
- Apart from containing white blood cells, the spleen also stores red blood cells and platelets.
- The spleen is also responsible for analyzing the quality of our red blood cells. So, for instance, a red blood cell is damaged or unable to move through the blood system properly, the spleen removes it from circulation. Further, if the spleen finds anything in the red blood cells that shouldn't be there, it gets rid of it.
Conditions That Affect the Spleen
If your spleen doesn't work properly, you are at a bigger risk of being infected with bacteria. In addition, you may suffer certain medical conditions. For starters, it may start removing healthy blood cells, which may lead to anemia or an increased risk of infection from a reduced number of white blood cells.
Some of the other conditions that cause an enlarged spleen include:
Sickle cell disease: With sickle cell disease, a group of disorders, the red blood cells become misshapen and get trapped in the spleen. This ultimately causes the spleen to expand. If more and more red blood cells continue getting trapped in the organ, it will keep getting larger. This can cause anemia.
Sickled red blood cells also harm the spleen tissues and disrupt their normal functions. People with this disease are hence at a higher risk of infection.
Hereditary spherocytosis: It’s a condition that affects red blood cells. People with hereditary spherocytosis experience a shortage of red blood cells as they are destroyed earlier than normal by the spleen. The gene mutations that cause red blood cells to be misshapen are called spherocytes that are taken out of circulation and sent to the spleen to be removed. When this keeps happening, it causes a shortage of red blood cells and too many in the spleen.
Cancer: The spleen is the largest lymphatic organ in the body and is surrounded by a connective tissue capsule. It can also be connected with lymphomas or cancer of the lymphatic system as well as blood cancers such as Hodgkin’s disease and leukemia.
Thalassemia: The spleen helps produce blood cells before birth. In people with thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder, the bone marrow is unable to make red blood cells normally. This causes the spleen to enlarge to produce more red blood cells.
Bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections: If the spleen does not function properly, you are at a bigger risk from bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections. This is simply because the spleen is responsible for getting rid of harmful bacteria from the blood. In many viral infections, the spleen becomes enlarged which can cause infections such as syphilis, tuberculosis, endocarditis, mononucleosis (mono), and malaria.
Your spleen may become enlarged (a condition called splenomegaly) if it can’t filter your blood as efficiently as it’s used to. This primarily happens due to several different medical conditions or diseases that cause blood cells to break down too quickly such as cirrhosis, leukemia, or rheumatoid arthritis.
An enlarged spleen traps an excessive amount of blood cells and platelets and may start destroying healthy red blood cells as well. This condition can lead to a significant reduction of healthy blood cells and platelets in your blood as your spleen becomes clogged.
An enlarged doesn’t always show symptoms at first. But you should look out for these signs:
* Feeling discomfort or pain behind your left ribs
* Feeling too full quickly without eating too much. This happens because an enlarged spleen can press on the stomach.
* Frequent infections.
* Fatigue or anemia.
* Easy bleeding
If it enlarges too much without being detected, the spleen can be damaged or ruptured after a forceful blow to the abdomen. This may cause acute pain behind your left ribs and you would require your spleen to be removed.
How to Treat an Enlarged Spleen
Your doctor can often tell if you have an enlarged spleen by touching the area around your abdomen. A blood test, CT scan, or MRI scan would verify the diagnosis.
If you are diagnosed with an enlarged spleen, you are likely to be first given antibiotics to treat the underlying condition that may have caused the issue. However, a severe infection may not respond to antibiotics and can lead to inflammation and a buildup of pus. In such a scenario, your spleen may need to be removed. Surgery may also be needed if doctors are unable to find out the cause of your spleen enlargement.
The surgery to remove your spleen is called a splenectomy. Sometimes just part of your spleen can be removed if needed, which is called a partial splenectomy. Recovery from this surgery usually takes around four and six weeks.
Can You Live Without Your Spleen?
After your spleen is removed, you are left with a compromised immune system and are at greater risk of bacterial infections. Does that mean you can’t live normally without a spleen?
While the spleen is an important part of the body, you can indeed live without your spleen if it’s damaged by disease or injury. Your liver and lymph nodes take over the job of the spleen after it’s removed from your body. That being said, you may develop certain infections quickly and are likely to take longer than usual to recover after getting sick without your spleen.
Your doctor may ask you to get vaccinated against certain infections to lessen your risk. Some of these include:
* Tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough
* Measles, mumps, and rubella
If you are an otherwise healthy adult, you can lead a normal life even without your spleen. Consult with your doctor to devise a long-term plan to stay healthy after your spleen is removed.
How Do I Keep My Spleen Healthy?
Currently, there's not much research on how your diet can affect your spleen. There are also no recommendations on specific foods you should avoid to reduce the risk of developing an enlarged spleen. However, a healthy diet affects your overall health and keeps your immune system robust. Therefore, to keep your spleen and immune system in good shape, you should exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight, and drink plenty of water, health experts say. Eating a balanced diet abundant in fruits and vegetables will be beneficial as well.
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