Spotlight on the Spleen: Why You Need to Care for this Organ?

Published on: 16/11/2021

Although most of us have spleens, we rarely consider how they function and the role they play in our health. Let’s learn more about this fist-sized organ and why it’s important to keep it healthy.

We may already know the functions of most of our organs: the heart pumps blood and sends it throughout our body, the lungs allow us to take in oxygen, the stomach further digests the food we eat. But we probably don’t know much about our spleen  — that small organ located just behind your stomach and under your diaphragm.

While the spleen may not be as well-known as the other organs, it does play an important role in our body, and our overall health. Let’s find out more about the spleen, and why it’s essential to take care of this soft and purple vascular organ. 

What is the Function of the Spleen?

Despite its small size, the spleen is quite a busy organ. It‘s made up of numerous vessels that transport and circulate fluids throughout your body, doing the following functions:

Filters the blood 

The major function of the spleen is to filter your blood. It detects and eliminates red blood cells that are old, damaged, or deformed. Think of your spleen as the "quality control" for your blood: as blood flows into it, red blood cells must pass through a maze of small passages. Healthy blood cells easily pass through the spleen and circulate throughout the body. Meanwhile, macrophages (huge white blood cells) in your spleen will break down blood cells that fail the test. 

Stores blood

The spleen also serves as an organ for blood storage. The blood vessels of our spleen can widen or narrow depending on the needs of our body, and it can even retain up to a cup of reserve blood when its arteries are expanded. This is crucial should you need extra blood. For example, if you lose blood due to trauma – your spleen can respond by releasing that reserve blood back into your system.

Plays a role in the immune system 

The same way it detects damaged red blood cells, the spleen can also recognize any unwanted microorganisms (such as bacteria or viruses) in your blood. When one of these invaders is discovered in your bloodstream, your spleen and lymph nodes spring into action, producing an army of defender cells known as lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are white blood cells that create antibodies, which are unique proteins that weaken or kill bacteria, viruses, and other infection-causing organisms. Antibodies and white blood cells catch and destroy bacteria, preventing diseases from spreading.

What Happens When Your Spleen is Damaged

The spleen can become enlarged due to a variety of factors, including disorders that cause blood cells to break down too quickly. This excess blood cell destruction can overwork the spleen, causing it to expand.

Infections such as tuberculosis, syphilis, malaria, endocarditis, and mononucleosis (mono) can cause an enlarged spleen. Furthermore, blood cancer like leukemia and liver diseases like cirrhosis also affect the spleen in the same way.  

Can You Live Without a Spleen?

The spleen is a very helpful organ, yet it's not vital. There may be instances wherein the spleen may need to be surgically removed because of injury, or in order to transplant other organs.

When this happens, many of your spleen's activities can be taken up by other organs of your body, such as your lymph nodes and liver. However, without your spleen, you become more susceptible to infections due to the fact that the spleen is so important to your immune system. This is why, once your spleen has been removed, your doctor may advise you to take extra precautions, which may include vaccines. You'll also be given oral antibiotics to take on a daily basis, which is another strategy to avoid infection. 

How to Keep the Spleen Healthy

It can be difficult to keep the spleen healthy because many of the reasons for an enlarged spleen are inevitable — such as cancer or blood cell abnormalities. However, there are a few things that may be done to avoid having an enlarged spleen, and here are some pointers:

  • Don't share personal items such as toothbrushes, silverware, or drinks with other people, especially if you know they've had a mono disease
  • Wear protective gear, such as padding, if you play contact sports like football to safeguard your spleen and other organs from injury
  • Use protection to avoid sexually transmitted infections
  • If you drink alcohol, do it in moderation to avoid cirrhosis and protect your liver
  • When driving or riding in a car, always use your seatbelt.

If you do get an enlarged spleen, follow your doctor's recommendations for treatment. Until your doctor gives you clearance, stay away from contact sports and other high-impact activities.