Signs & Symptoms of Spleen Problems

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The spleen, located in the upper portion of the abdomen on the left side of the body, plays an essential role in the proper functioning of the immune and circulatory system. A number of disorders and medical conditions can cause the spleen to become enlarged and function abnormally. When this occurs, the individual can suffer from a characteristic set of medical signs and symptoms of spleen problems.

Spleen problems can affect people of any age.
Spleen problems can affect people of any age. (Image: Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images)

Spleen Function

As part of the circulatory system, the spleen is responsible for filtering and removing old and damaged red blood cells from the blood. The spleen also stores fresh reserves of red blood cells that can be used if the individual experiences a large, sudden amount of blood loss. In the immune system, the spleen plays an important role in removing certain types of harmful bacteria from the body.

Red blood cells
Red blood cells (Image: Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

Abdominal Pain

The most common symptom--and usually the earliest symptom of spleen problems is pain in the upper left portion of the abdomen. This occurs when the spleen becomes enlarged and inflamed from medical conditions such as leukemia or mononucleosis. The pain can often spread or radiate to the lower back and the left shoulder, making the spleen problems highly uncomfortable for the patient.

Abdominal pain
Abdominal pain (Image: Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images)

Increased Infections

When the spleen becomes enlarged, it will begin to filter unnecessarily large amounts of white blood cells from the circulatory system. As the number of bacteria-fighting white cells in the blood decreases, the individual can begin to suffer from repeated bouts of infection. The spleen can become further enlarged from its excessive store of cells, exacerbating the spleen problems even more.

Doctor with patient
Doctor with patient (Image: Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images)

Circulatory System Problems

A malfunctioning spleen results in two main circulatory system symptoms: excessive bleeding and anemia. Both are caused by an enlarged spleen removing too many red blood cells from circulating blood. The blood becomes thinner and less able to coagulate due to its lower number of platelets. Anemia, characterized by fatigue, dizziness, and headaches, develops because the oxygen content of the blood is greatly decreased. Both spleen problems can be serious if left untreated.

Anemia
Anemia (Image: Polka Dot Images/Polka Dot/Getty Images)

Diagnosis

Spleen problems can successfully be diagnosed in a number of ways. These include a physical exam, in which the physician may be able to feel an enlarged spleen; ultrasounds; CT scans; an MRI scan; and blood tests, which can determine if the red and white blood cell levels in the blood are lower than normal. Spleen problems should be addressed as soon as you notice these symptoms.

MRI
MRI (Image: Medioimages/Photodisc/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

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