What Does the Spleen Do?
“Must I observe you? must I stand and crouch
Under your testy humour? By the gods
You shall digest the venom of your spleen”
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
For centuries, writers like Shakespeare and many other poets, philosophers, and scientists associated the spleen with an uneasy disposition or a foul temperament. It was thought to secrete a black substance that would negatively affect personality and mood. The term “splenetic personality” was used hundreds of years ago to refer to a person who was irritable or otherwise bad-tempered.
Modern science, of course, has learned much about the human body’s function since then, but the spleen remains a somewhat mysterious organ for most people. So the question is: what does the spleen do?
In the most basic terms, the spleen filters our blood. Located under the rib cage and behind the stomach, the spleen is the largest organ in the lymphatic system and plays an important role in the healthy function of our immune system. By filtering out toxins and cellular waste in conjunction with the circulatory system, the spleen and lymph nodes are critically important for preventing disease and fighting infections.
The spleen does the majority of its work by regulating the number of red blood cells found in our blood. Additionally, this versatile organ stores the platelets that are necessary for blood clots to form in the event of injury, for example. Keeping the number of red blood cells and platelets consistent is important for healthy function; a healthy spleen will allow blood to efficiently carry oxygen to all parts of the body and be at the ready if injury or disease is detected.
The other related and important function of the spleen is to store white blood cells. White blood cells stored in the spleen are called lymphocytes, and they are one of the body’s primary defenses against various diseases and infections. When the body detects an infection, these lymphocytes are released into the bloodstream and seek out dangerous elements and eliminate them.
Conditions Related to the Spleen
Enlarged spleen (splenomegaly): An enlarged spleen can have many different causes, but it is typically due to an underlying condition which leads to either overwork of the organ or an excess of cellular material. One of the most common causes is the overproduction of red blood cells in bone marrow.
Ruptured spleen: A spleen can become ruptured if the body is exposed to an extreme contact injury. Depending on the severity of the injury, the spleen can burst on contact or result in internal bleeding. Some conditions, like mononucleosis or malaria, can increase the likelihood of a spleen rupture by contributing to splenomegaly.
Thrombocytopenia: This condition is defined by a reduced platelet count in the blood. This can occur if the spleen is enlarged due to a buildup of platelets, and it can result in fewer platelets being available for blood clotting functions.
Sickle cell disease: This set of disorders is largely a genetically inherited condition that affects the hemoglobin in red blood cells; in turn, the affected hemoglobin disrupts cells’ ability to transport oxygen throughout the body. When that happens, several organs including the spleen, can become damaged.
Spleen cancer: Though somewhat rare, spleen cancer can either originate in the spleen or be carried there through metastasization. It is sometimes related to other lymphatic system cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma.
Splenic infarction: In situations where blood flow to the spleen is reduced or interrupted, splenetic infarction can occur. It is during this interruption of blood flow that can cause the spleen to be damaged and negatively affect future function.
Symptoms and Causes of an Enlarged Spleen
One of the most common conditions related to the spleen is splenomegaly, an enlarged spleen.
Most of the time an enlarged spleen is the result of an underlying problem, so the symptoms will likely present in similar ways as other health issues. You won’t be able to feel your spleen being larger nor specific pain or discomfort in the area, so you’ll have to be aware of some typical symptoms that might point to a problem:
- Easily bleeding from even minor injuries.
- Feeling tired or easily fatigued.
- An increase in the number of infections you have.
- A feeling of being full without having eaten (due to the enlarged spleen putting physical pressure on your stomach).
- Pressure or mild pain on the left side of your abdomen or even up to your left shoulder.
There are many different potential causes of an enlarged spleen, including viral and bacterial infections, cirrhosis, anemia, cancer of the blood like Hodgkin’s disease, and some metabolic disorders. Since the spleen is so central to immune system health, recognizing symptoms and finding the underlying cause is critically important to your overall health and wellbeing.
Maintaining Spleen Health
Like most other components of medical health, an overall healthy lifestyle is important for maintaining a healthy spleen. Proper diet and regular exercise are important factors in helping your spleen continue to filter toxins and replace damaged red and white blood cells and platelets.
Some people, unfortunately, have genetic conditions (such as sickle cell disease) or other health complications which make spleen problems more likely. For those conditions, it is important to have regular annual visits to a doctor to track any potential for problems.
Since one of the most frequent spleen problems is an enlarged spleens, there are a variety of measures that can be taken to prevent splenomegaly and related conditions:
- Avoid sharing utensils or objects that interact with mucous membranes with anyone who is infected with mononucleosis.
- Wear proper protective gear for any sporting activities that might lead to contact injuries.
- Always use proper protection when engaging in sexual activity with a new partner.
- Drink alcohol in moderation to maintain liver health and decrease the likelihood of developing cirrhosis.
Can You Live Without a Spleen?
While the spleen plays a number of important functions in general health and the efficient functioning of the immune system, it is still possible to live without a spleen. As a result of many of the conditions listed above, there are times when it can become necessary to remove the spleen for the patient’s long term health.
This procedure, referred to as a splenectomy, is typically used to remove a spleen that has ruptured, either due to complications from an infection or an injury. The surgery can be done laparoscopically by a skilled surgeon to avoid an unnecessarily invasive operation. In some cases the procedure can be elective (in consultation with your doctor) in order to preempt potential future complications.
Once the spleen has been removed, the rest of the lymphatic system and the liver will take over the function of the former spleen. Those who have had their spleen removed can still live healthy lives, but they are consequently more susceptible to some diseases and therefore must be more conscious of those related complications.
The spleen is a small organ that isn’t popularly understood, but it plays a vital role in our everyday health and wellbeing. By filtering and regulating red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets, the spleen is an important factor in the function of the lymphatic system in overall immune system health.
By having a better understanding of how our spleens function, you will be able to make better health choices.
If you have experienced some of the symptoms discussed here and want more information, contact Gastroenterology Consultants of Savannah to make an appointment. We have several convenient locations and a helpful staff that is dedicated to providing excellent healthcare.