What does it do?

The spleen controls the level of blood cells in the body (white cells, red cells and platelets). This allows it to help the immune system by producing more infection-fighting white cells, also known as lymphocytes, if an infection is present in the blood. It also recycles red blood cells when they are not functioning as well as they should, due to age or damage.

The spleen is located just under the rib cage above the stomach on the left side of the body. It can vary in size but in most cases it is approximately the size of a fist.

Poorly functioning spleens may start to remove healthy blood cells from the body which can result in anaemia, easier bleeding or bruising and a higher risk of infection.

It is possible for people to be born without a spleen and lead normal, healthy lives. The organ is sometimes removed for medical purposes. In these instances the liver and lymph nodes take over the functions usually performed by the spleen.

What conditions can affect it?

  • Ruptured spleen

This can occur due to an accident or injury. The rupture may occur immediately at the point of injury or some time later. Potential symptoms of a ruptured spleen include a pain on the left side of the abdomen under the ribs or a rapid heart rate and dizziness due to a reduction in blood pressure.

A ruptured spleen should be treated as a life threatening emergency. Immediate medical attention should be sought at hospital A & E.

  • Enlarged spleen

The spleen can become enlarged following an infection or injury. Conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, cirrhosis and leukemia can all lead to an enlarged spleen.

An enlarged spleen may be more prone to rupturing and therefore your doctor is likely to advise a break from any high impact activities or contact sports.

Not all cases of enlarged spleens result in obvious symptoms but they can cause: frequent infections, increased bleeding, anaemia, pain behind the left side of the ribs and feeling full more quickly when eating than usual.

A doctor can diagnose an enlarged spleen by feeling the abdomen. Blood tests and a CT or MRI scan can be used to confirm a diagnosis.

  • Sickle cell disease

Sickle cell disease refers to several, usually inherited, red blood cell disorders. A complication of which can cause the spleen to enlarge, thus restricting the number of oxygen-carrying blood cells being pumped around the body.

Sickle cell conditions are usually diagnosed in pregnancy or soon after birth, and can vary in severity. Pain is one of the main symptoms of the condition, and this is usually managed with medication.

Treating spleen conditions

Enlarged spleens can usually be treated by addressing the underlying medical condition. For example infections may require antibiotics. The spleen will then be monitored to make sure it is not at risk of rupture. However, a doctor may suggest a splenectomy (an operation to remove the spleen) if an enlarged spleen causes extreme symptoms or the cause cannot be pinpointed.

A ruptured spleen may need to be removed in an emergency splenectomy procedure. If the cause of the rupture is not an obvious one (a road traffic accident or sports injury for example) then further tests may be required to establish what happened.

It is possible to live a full and healthy life without a spleen, however it can leave you at risk of contracting certain infections. For this reason you may need to have several vaccinations to protect you against infections such as pneumonia and influenza.

How to keep your spleen healthy

Many of the things we do in life won’t have a direct effect on the spleen, so it can be difficult to pinpoint things you can do to keep it healthy. The conditions that sometimes affect it can be out of your hands. However, it might be possible to take some precautions to avoid infection or injury.

To keep your spleen healthy, you should aim to:

  • Take the appropriate measures to remain safe when taking part in physical sports (such as wearing protective clothing)
  • Keep up to date with your immunisations
  • Practice safe sex
  • Always wear a seatbelt when travelling by car
  • Only consume alcohol within recommended lower risk guidelines, as set out by the NHS.