What Does Your Spleen Do?
What is the spleen?
The spleen is one of those body organs that many people think about only when something goes wrong. However, the spleen has many functions and although we can survive without it, your chances of catching infection and other conditions are increased if this organ becomes damaged. The spleen is also part of the lymphatic system. At its most basic, the lymphatic system is the tissues and organs of the body that make, store and carry white blood cells to fight infection and disease.
The spleen is on average about 4 inches long - although size and shape do vary - and basically a purple or brownish coloured fist shape. It weighs around 150g. It's situated in the upper left part of the abdomen, under the rib cage next to the stomach. The rib cage protects the spleen from most minor injuries but the ribs can make it more difficult to feel if the spleen becomes enlarged for any reason.
So what are the functions of the spleen?
Functions of the spleen
The spleen has two main types of tissue. They're responsible for the main functions of the organ. The two tissue types are:
- White pulp - this area contains white blood cells called 'T' cells and 'B' cells. When the blood from the body enters this area the 'T' cells identify and attack any foreign substances such as viruses or bacteria. The 'B' cells make anti-bodies that will target and destroy invaders that cause infections.
- Red pulp - this area stores a large amount of blood cells called platelets - these cells are responsible for stopping bleeding when an injury occurs. However, the spleen will usually only release it's store of platelets in severe bleeding.
The main functions of the spleen are:
- A filter for the blood as part of the immune system. The white blood cells that the spleen stores checks the red blood cells as they pass through the organ. If there are any bacteria, viruses or other harmful substances, the white cells will clean them from the red blood cells. This process is very important in keeping the blood and the body healthy.
- The re-cycling of blood cells. The red blood cells live for about 120 days. The spleen then breaks them down. The red blood cell debris that remains are now transferred to to other areas of the body either to be excreted or re-cycled into new red blood cells.
- Production of blood cells - the spleen only has the capability to make red blood cells when we are at the foetus stage of life. Just prior to or just after birth, the bone marrow takes over this role from the spleen. However in some adults who have certain diseases, the spleen will start this process up again.
- The storage of platelets and white blood cells - in particular monocytes.
- The spleen helps in the fight against certain infectious bacteria that cause pneumonia and meningitis.
- It is one of the areas of activity for the reticuloendothelial system. This is a widespread system of the body that consists of various kinds of cells able to ingest bacteria. The name 'reticuloendothelial' is now being replaced by the more modern - mononuclear phagocyte system. However, for better understanding, I've included both as many of the best health and medicine websites use both terms.
- The spleen also helps to regulate the amount of blood circulating through the body.
Like any other part of the body the spleen can be damaged due to trauma or affected by disease. To finish off we'll take a brief look at the main causes of malfunction of the spleen.
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Conditions that may affect the spleen
There are quite a number of conditions that can affect the spleen and so cause it to stop functioning properly. Although people can live without their spleen, they do have a much higher risk of catching infections and viruses. Below are the most common conditions to affect the spleen but there others:
- Enlarged spleen - sometimes called either splenomegaly or hypersplenism. When the spleen is enlarged it doesn't always mean that there is a serious problem. However conditions that can cause this to happen are numerous and range from liver disease, viruses, bacterial/parasitic infections, cancers, inflammatory disorders and blood disorders. Trauma to the spleen can also cause it to enlarge. In addition, it's quite a common injury for the spleen to rupture due to a car accident or other major incident. In this case the spleen has to be removed in order to save the person's life. The problem with the spleen is that it doesn't always rupture at the time of the accident but perhaps days even weeks after.
- Sickle cell anaemia - in this condition the red blood cells that are usually round are shaped like a sickle. These deformed cells block vessels and can lead to organ damage - especially the spleen.
- Thrombocytopenia - this basically means that there is a low level of platelet blood cells flowing through the body system. With this disease the spleen may then store excessive amounts of the cells leading it to become enlarged.
Treatments for spleen disorders:
- The main form of treatment for a severely damaged or diseased spleen is to have it removed surgically - this is called a splenectomy.
- When the spleen has been removed or if it isn't functioning as it should, then people need to have vaccinations against particular infections caused by bacteria and viruses - the flu and pneumonia are two examples. This helps to boost the immune system that has suffered a loss due to the removal of the spleen.
The spleen is often ignored and yet the work that this small organ does is amazing! We only really pay attention to it when something goes wrong and yet it deserves more recognition than it gets. Hopefully this hub will help to bring more deserved attention to this hard working and important part of our body system.