What is an enlarged spleen?
The spleen sits under your rib cage in the upper left part of your abdomen toward your back. It is an organ that is part of the lymph system and works as a drainage network that defends your body against infection.
White blood cells produced in the spleen engulf bacteria, dead tissue, and foreign matter, removing them from the blood as blood passes through it. The spleen also maintains healthy red and white blood cells and platelets; platelets help your blood clot. The spleen filters blood, removing abnormal blood cells from the bloodstream.
A spleen is normally about the size of your fist. A doctor usually can’t feel it during an exam. But diseases can cause it to swell and become many times its normal size. Because the spleen is involved in many functions, many conditions may affect it.
An enlarged spleen is not always a sign of a problem. When a spleen becomes enlarged, though, it often means it has been doing its job but has become overactive. For example, sometimes the spleen is overactive in removing and destroying blood cells. This is called hypersplenism. It can happen for many reasons, including problems with too many platelets and other disorders of the blood.
How common is an enlarged spleen?
A enlarged spleen is common. Anyone can develop an enlarged spleen at any age. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of an enlarged spleen?
The common symptoms of an enlarged spleen are:
- No symptoms in some cases
- Pain or fullness in the left upper abdomen that may spread to the left shoulder
- Feeling full without eating or after eating only a small amount from the enlarged spleen pressing on your stomach
- Frequent infections
- Easy bleeding
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
You should contact your doctor if you have pain in your left upper abdomen, especially if it’s severe or the pain gets worse when you take a deep breath.
What causes enlarged spleen?
- Viral infections, such as mononucleosis
- Parasitic infections, such as toxoplasmosis
- Bacterial infections, such as endocarditis (an infection of your heart’s valves)
- Leukemia, a cancer in which white blood cells displace normal blood cells
- Lymphoma, a cancer of lymph tissue, such as Hodgkin’s disease
Other causes of an enlarged spleen include:
- Inflammatory diseases such as sarcoidosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis
- Trauma, such as an injury during contact sports
- Cancer that has spread (metastasized) to the spleen
- A cyst, a noncancerous fluid-filled sac
- A large abscess, a pus-filled cavity usually caused by a bacterial infection
- Infiltrative diseases such as Gaucher’s disease, amyloidosis, or glycogen storage diseases
Most people don’t know they have an enlarged spleen because symptoms are rare. People usually find out about it during a physical exam. These are the most common symptoms of an enlarged spleen:
- Being unable to eat a large meal.
- Feeling discomfort, fullness, or pain on the upper left side of the abdomen; this pain may spread to your left shoulder.
If you have an enlarged spleen, you may develop other signs or symptoms, too. These are related to the underlying disease. They may include signs and symptoms such as:
- Weight loss
- Frequent infections
- Easy bleeding
What increases my risk for an enlarged spleen?
There are many risk factors for enlarged spleen, such as:
- Children and young adults with infections, such as mononucleosis
- People who have Gaucher’s disease, Niemann-Pick disease, and several other inherited metabolic disorders affecting the liver and spleen
- People who live in or travel to areas where malaria is common
Diagnosis & treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is an enlarged spleen diagnosed?
An enlarged spleen is most often found on physical examination. Either the health care practitioner is looking for an enlarged spleen because of a diagnosis that has already been made, or it is found incidentally when initially examining a patient (and it then serves as a clue to an underlying diagnosis).
With its location protected beneath the left lower ribs, a normal spleen is usually not felt on physical exam, except in some unusually thin individuals. As it enlarges, the spleen grows from the left upper quadrant of the abdomen towards the umbilicus (the belly button). Sometimes the doctor will ask the patient to roll on their right side to better attempt to feel the spleen. An enlarged spleen may not be felt in obese patients.
On occasion, an enlarged spleen may be diagnosed by plain X-ray, ultrasound, abdominal CT scan, or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
How is an enlarged spleen treated?
Limit any activities that could rupture your spleen, such as contact sports. A ruptured spleen can cause lots of blood loss and be life threatening. It’s important to seek treatment for the cause of your enlarged spleen. Left untreated, an enlarged spleen can lead to serious complications. In most cases, treatment of the underlying cause of the enlarged spleen can prevent removal of the spleen. In some cases, the spleen will need to be removed surgically (splenectomy).
If surgery is needed, a surgeon is likely to remove the spleen using laparoscopy rather than open surgery. This means the surgery is performed through small incisions. A laparoscope allows the surgeon to view and remove the spleen.
If your spleen is removed, you cannot effectively clear certain bacteria from your body and will be more vulnerable to certain infections. So vaccines or other medications are needed to prevent infection.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage an enlarged spleen?
The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with an enlarged spleen:
Avoid contact sports — such as soccer, football and hockey — and limit other activities as recommended by your doctor. Modifying your activities can reduce the risk of a ruptured spleen.
It’s also important to wear a seat belt. If you’re in a car accident, a seat belt can help prevent injury to your spleen.
Finally, be sure to keep your vaccinations up to date because your risk of infection is increased. That means at least an annual flu shot, and a tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis booster every 10 years. Ask your doctor if you need any additional vaccines.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Enlarged Spleen: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments. http://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/enlarged-spleen-causes-symptoms-and-treatments#1-2. Accessed June 30, 2017.
Enlarged spleen (splenomegaly). http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/enlarged-spleen/home/ovc-20212739. Accessed June 30, 2017.
Enlarged Spleen (Splenomegaly). http://www.medicinenet.com/enlarged_spleen/page3.htm#how_is_the_diagnosis_of_an_enlarged_spleen_made. Accessed June 30, 2017.
Review Date: June 30, 2017 | Last Modified: June 30, 2017