The spleen performs functions critical to preventing infections, but sometimes injury or disease damages the organ to the point where doctors must remove it. People can live without their spleen, although it leaves them at a higher risk of infections.
The spleen is a fist-sized, dark red organ located between the stomach and the diaphragm. Its primary functions include filtering the blood and breaking down older red blood cells.
Doctors might remove the spleen in case of severe trauma to the organ, such as from a car accident, or if other medical conditions such as cancer or blood disease have damaged it. Spleens can usually recover on their own or be repaired surgically after light or moderate trauma.
Doctors usually perform splenectomies, removal of the spleen, using laparoscopic technology requiring only a small incision, although they might use open surgery in emergency situations. Either way, it is a major surgical procedure requiring several weeks of recovery.
Losing the spleen weakens the body's immune system. Doctors will recommend immediate vaccines, particularly a pneumonia vaccine, and an antibiotic regimen to protect the body during recovery.
Nearby organs such as the liver take over the functions of the spleen, so most patients recover to a normal lifestyle. Even so, splenectomy patients should be extra wary of infections, receiving annual flu shots, informing future doctors and dentists of the splenectomy and, for children who have had the procedure, continuing an antibiotic regimen.