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An enlarged spleen, also known as a splenomegaly occurs when the spleen, an organ located on the left side of the body just below the rib cage, increases in size for an unknown reason. The spleen is typically the size of a fist, but certain infections, anemias, or even blood cancers can cause it to swell to double or triple its healthy mass. This enlargment of the spleen is not actually a disease or infection in and of itself, but is the symptom of a greater problem in the system.
Often, no symptoms will be felt by a patient who is suffering from an enlarged spleen. If symptoms do exist, they may include pain in the left side and extending up to the left shoulder, or a feeling of being full after only eating a small amount. This second symptom is caused by the oversized organ pushing on the stomach, and limiting its storage space. An enlarged spleen can be found by doctors during a physical exam, when they palpitate that area of the body. X-rays and blood tests will be used to confirm this diagnosis.
Although not the root cause of a problem, an enlarged spleen can nonetheless pose health risks. One of the main functions of the spleen is to filter out old or damaged blood cells, but as it grows to too large, it begins to filter new and healthy blood cells as well. This sets up a repeating cycle in which the spleen grows larger the more red blood cells it filters, and continues to filter more blood cells as it grows larger. Also, the spleen can begin to consume platelets, which are necessary for blood to clot. If the problem is severe, a patient could be in real danger of bleeding out from even a minor wound.
Enlarged spleens can be caused by viruses, such as mononucleosis; leukemia and other blood cancers; and bacterial infections, such as syphilis, among other ailments. Even a healthy spleen is a soft organ, prone to severe damage if traumatized. If an enlarged spleen ruptures, it could cause massive bleeding in the abdominal cavity, which can be fatal.
Treatments for an enlarged spleen are aimed at the root cause rather than the spleen itself. In cases where the cause of the problem cannot be managed or the disease is recurrent, doctors may recommend a splenectomy, the removal of the spleen. This will result in a person being much more susceptible to infections, however, as the spleen both produces and maintains white blood cells, which are essential to fight disease. Another option for some patients is the use of radiation to shrink the spleen; however, the long-term effect of radiation on the organ is not fully known.