Splenomegaly is a medical condition in which the spleen becomes enlarged. Causes for splenomegaly may include infections, blood cancers, liver diseases, and metabolic disorders, or even undue pressure on the liver and spleen's veins or blood clots in those veins. Specific diseases that may cause the condition include mononucleosis, syphilis, Hodgkin's disease, Gaucher's disease, and Niemann-Pick disease. Splenomegaly can effect people of all ages and, as symptoms of splenomegaly usually don't present themselves, the condition can remain undetected until a physician conducts a general physical exam.
The spleen is located on the left upper quadrant of the abdomen, just below the rib cage. Amongst its various functions, the spleen removes and destroys blood cells that are old or have been damaged, accumulates blood and platelets that aid in clotting, and prevents infections by creating white blood cells to combat pathogens. Any or all of these functions can be compromised when the spleen becomes enlarged through splenomegaly.
A normal spleen is usually as big as a human fist. When splenomegaly occurs, it can cause significant changes in the organ's function and can even result in the partial destruction of it. For example, an enlarged spleen means that normal-functioning, as well as old and damaged, blood cells will be removed from the spleen. This means that the availability of healthy blood cells in a person's bloodstream will be reduced.
If splenomegaly is suspected, a physician may order blood tests or imaging like an ultrasound, a computerized tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imagining (MRI) to confirm a diagnoses. In cases where causes are difficult to determine, specialized tests like a bone marrow exam or liver function tests may be performed. Some patients, however, may experience symptoms associated with splenomegaly. Those may include anemia, recurring or frequent infections, easy bleeding, and pain that radiates from the left upper abdomen to the shoulder. People who experience pain that is frequent, severe, or made worse through breathing should visit a doctor immediately, as this may indicate a ruptured spleen which can be potentially life-threatening.
Splenomegaly is treated by first addressing the underlying conditions that encouraged the spleen to enlarge. For example, antibiotics may be prescribed to those fighting infections and chemotherapy or radiation may be administered to patients who suffer from Hodgkin's disease. By treating the underlying condition, it is hoped that the spleen will return to its normal size. Surgery for removing an enlarged spleen is sometimes recommended, though it is usually a last resort.