What does the spleen do?

Written by robert karr
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What does the spleen do?
(National Library of Medicine Database)

The spleen is a part of the body's lymphatic system, located just under the rib cage on the left side of the body. Although people can survive without a spleen because other organs can take over some of its functions, there are risks, such as an increased susceptibility to infection.


The spleen has an important role in the body's ability to manufacture antibodies that help resist infection. It also removes harmful microorganisms from the blood and gets rid of old blood cells. Before birth, the spleen manufactures red blood cells until after birth when the bone marrow can take over this process. In Chinese medicine, the spleen is considered a vital component in making chi and blood.


Two main types of tissue, with different functions, exist in the spleen: reticuloendothelial, concerned with removing old blood cells and other cellular leftovers, and white pulp, which creates lymphocytes. Blood enters the spleen from the splenic artery and exits through the splenic vein, continuing on to the portal vein that leads to the liver.


An enlarged spleen (splenomegaly) can cause problems in a number of areas. It may destroy helpful blood cells. Other related conditions with an enlarged spleen include infections, cancers of the blood-specific diseases and conditions such as sickle cell anaemia, cirrhosis and systemic lupus erythematous (SLE). Ruptured spleens, typically from a severe blow, create a great deal of pain and tenderness in the abdomen. This may not be immediately obvious because often the blood leaking from a ruptured spleen is slow. However, a ruptured spleen is always an emergency situation.


The size of a normal spleen is difficult to determine exactly because of changes that take place when one is removed (splenectomy). For example, since the spleen contains blood, surgery to extract a spleen will involve blood loss and other changes. Using diagnostic techniques, depending on the type, the spleen may range from less than 5 inches long or 2 inches thick measured by ultrasound, or less than 4 inches long as seen on a CAT scan. Weight may vary between 56.7gr. and 9 oz.


Rheumatoid arthritis may be associated with an enlarged spleen. Infectiousness mononucleosis can cause an enlarged spleen. Infections and abscesses of the spleen can occur. In seniors, a disease called polycythemia vera can occur in which too many red blood cells are produced. In this situation, blood flows more slowly to small vessels and blood clots are more likely to form.The spleen can enlarge because there are more and more red blood cells to remove.


Problems with the spleen may be difficult to diagnose. Symptoms are confusing and can apply to other conditions. Because the spleen is next to the stomach, it may produce a feeling of fullness in the stomach after eating a small amount, and thus be mistaken for stomach problems. Pain from a splenic problem can be referred to the left shoulder, causing symptoms of a possible heart attack or angina. Blood tests can pinpoint the diagnosis. Other examinations such as bone marrow tests are used to check for bone cancers or other cancers like leukaemia or lymphoma.

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