Your spleen is an organ that helps to defend your body against infection by producing bacteria-fighting white blood cells. It also maintains healthy red and white blood cell counts and filters abnormal blood cells from the bloodstream. It’s role isn’t as well known as other organs like your lungs or stomach, but it plays a vital role in keeping you healthy, which is why medical treatment is advised if a problem develops within your spleen.
One problem that can arise is an enlarged spleen. An enlarged spleen doesn’t always mean that there’s a serious medical problem, but it does mean that doctors should rule out certain causes. Below, we take a look at what might cause an enlarged spleen, why it could be problematic, and how the condition is treated.
Causes of an Enlarged Spleen
Your spleen is typically about the size of your closed fist, but it can expand while it’s doing its job. When the spleen becomes overactive in removing and destroying damaged blood cells, this is known as hypersplenism. If the spleen remains enlarged or continues to get bigger, doctors need to figure out what’s causing it to grow. Here are some causes of an enlarged spleen:
- Infections (Viral, Parasitic, Bacterial)
- Inflammatory Diseases
- Cyst Development
- Infiltrative Diseases
- Blood or Other Organ Diseases
Most people don’t know they are dealing with an enlarged spleen, at least at the outset because symptoms aren’t always severe or debilitating. Some of the more common symptoms that suggest you may have an enlarged spleen include the inability to eat a large meal, discomfort in the upper-left side of your abdomen, fatigue and weight loss. Other more serious signs include difficulty or pain while breathing and anemia.
Diagnosis and Treatment For Enlarged Spleens
Diagnosing problems with your spleen is pretty simple. Your doctor will begin by conducting a physical exam by putting pressure on the area above your spleen. If this causes pain or discomfort, your doctor will then confirm the problem with the assistance of an ultrasound, CT scan or a blood test.
Treatment for the problem depends on the exact issue. If your doctor feels that the issue is under control and your spleen is simply in the final stages of hypersplenism, they may recommend activity limitations (a ruptured spleen would require emergency surgery) and regular monitoring. They may also prescribe some medications to take care of infections that are causing the spleen to enlarge.
However, if the spleen is diseased or cancerous, or if a cyst cannot be safely removed by itself, the most common course of action is a splenectomy. This involves removing the spleen, and it can oftentimes be done using minimally invasive techniques. With the assistance of a small camera and a few incisions, your surgeon can safely and effectively remove your spleen, removing any danger that it could be causing.
Of course, this means that you’ll have to make some adjustments for life after surgery without a spleen. Since you won’t be able to remove or fight off diseases as easily, you’ll likely be given some vaccines and daily medications that can help stave off potentially life-threatening disease. The majority of people who have their spleens removed go on to live a long and healthy life with only minor lifestyle modifications, so you shouldn’t be overly concerned if you need spleen surgery.