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Spleen refers to that fist-like organ situated to the left of your stomach, in the upper left of your abdomen. Usually 4 inches long and colored purple, the spleen has several vital functions.
In a healthy lifestyle, the spleen is crucial for filtering the blood; through it, red blood cells are recycled. Also, the spleen stores white blood cells and platelets.
Other than its importance to the blood, the spleen is invaluable to the body for keeping pneumonia and meningitis causing bacteria at bay.
Some people have a tiny additional spleen, but this is not abnormal.
Common spleen conditions
Because the spleen is protected by the ribcage, you could feel your spleen only when it is enlarged, which is not a normal condition. An enlarged spleen, also known as splenomegaly, may be the result of any of several underlying conditions: liver disease, lymphoma, leukemia and mononucleosis.
If left untreated, splenomegaly may lead to a dramatic reduction of platelets circulating in your blood. A low platelet count, or thrombocytopenia, happens because an enlarged spleen hogs more platelets than usual.
Spleens are easily injured. When it is injured, the spleen instantaneously ruptures, causing internal hemorrhage.
If you have sickle cell disease, you would likely harm your spleen, among other organs. During this illness, anomalous red blood cells obstruct blood flow to vital organs.
Treating spleen conditions
Spleen treatments are usually directed at the underlying conditions, not the organ itself. Sickle cell disease sufferers need to be immunized to curb infirmities otherwise preventable with a healthy spleen.
Sometimes, the spleen is so compromised that it needs to be removed. Splenectomy, the procedure of removing the spleen, is either done through a single large incision (laparotomy) or multiple little incisions (laparoscopy). It is customary to get vaccinated after a splenectomy, because the body would then be susceptible to many bacterial infections.
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Tests for spleen conditions
To check for an enlarged spleen, the doctor usually conducts a physical examination first. He or she presses on the belly under the left ribcage. Aside from physical exams, the doctor can detect splenomegaly or a compromised spleen through:
Ultrasound. An ultrasound probe is placed on the abdomen, wherein innocuous sound waves form an image of the spleen and nearby organs.
Bone marrow biopsy. This is done to rule out leukemia, lymphoma and other splenomegaly-causing cancers of the blood. The doctor takes out a bone marrow sample by puncturing a big bone, e.g. pelvic bone, with a special needle.
CT scan (Computed tomography). Multiple X-rays or “slices” are taken of the patient. Then the computer collates the images to build a refined picture of the spleen and other organs. The doctor may inject some contrast dye into your veins to make the image clearer.
MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging). This test uses magnetic waves to get an image of the spleen. The doctor may use contrast dye to gauge the flow of blood to the spleen.
Liver/spleen scan. To detect diseases in these organs, the doctor injects you with a radioactive tracer substance. The substance then travels through the veins and ends up in the organs, which stand out in the images as brilliant spots.