The spleen is an organ located on the left side of the human body, typically between the ninth and 12th ribs, and it is about the size of a human fist. It is part of the lymphatic system, and its primary duty is to keep the body's main fluids in balance by ridding it of old red blood cells. The spleen is also a reservoir of sorts, holding extra red blood cells in the event of a traumatic experience, and it is the organ responsible for distributing iron into the bloodstream. The organ plays an important role in the human immune system, especially when fighting off bacterial infections, so spleen disorders can be serious matters.
Splenomegaly, the most common of all spleen disorders, means that the spleen has become enlarged. Normally, the spleen is small enough that it remains unnoticed, tucked behind the ribcage and the stomach. There are certain diseases and conditions, however, that can cause the spleen to expand to many times its normal size. The causes can be as simple as a minor blockage, trauma to the abdomen or a viral infection such as mononucleosis, or it can be as critical as leukemia or Hodgkin's disease.
An enlarged spleen will not cause many symptoms, and the symptoms it does cause can often be mistaken for other medical illnesses. The symptoms usually include pain in the upper left portion of the abdomen and back. A feeling of fullness will often accompany the other symptoms as well, because of the close proximity of the stomach to the spleen and the pressure of the enlarged spleen on the stomach.
Someone suffering from an enlarged spleen might find it difficult to eat large meals, feeling full after the first couple of bites. A constant feeling of tiredness might also present itself if the spleen is not able to keep supplying the body with the appropriate amount of iron or becomes anemic from the lack of red blood cells being produced. If the spleen does not get enough blood, it will start to die, which will cause the pain from the upper left abdomen and back to migrate further up the body to the shoulder.
If these symptoms are ignored or not diagnosed correctly one is likely to end up with a ruptured spleen. This will result in tremendous blood loss. The pain will become magnified, and a doctor must be consulted immediately.
The other of the spleen disorders that are likely to be experienced is asplenia, the lack of spleen functions. This can result from several causes. In some cases, this is the result of a lack of the spleen itself.
Typically, asplenia deals with persons born without a spleen or who have had a splenectomy. The majority of asplenia cases are caused by one of numerous possible underlying disorders that, over time, have deteriorated the spleen's ability to function properly and have rendered it essentially useless. This leaves the body without an organ to fill the spleen's roles, though it is possible in some cases for the liver to pick up some of the spleen's functions.