Did you know you could have an enlarged spleen and not even realize it? It’s true. In fact, most people don’t experience any noticeable symptoms of an enlarged spleen at all!
Another surprise? Research shows that around 3 percent of healthy first-year college students have enlarged spleens. In some cases, people have genetically enlarged spleens, but it doesn’t affect their overall health. However, for others, it can point to problems like an underlying infection, illness or developing disorder. (1)
So what exactly is an enlarged spleen, how can you tell if you have one and how can you treat it if you do? Turns out there are natural ways to deal with this common condition.
What Is an Enlarged Spleen?
As a crucial part our lymphatic system, the spleen is a vital “guardian” organ that we rely on every single day to keep the body free from infections, virus and dangerous pathogens of all kinds. An enlarged spleen, a condition called “splenomegaly,” is a clear warning sign that the immune system is fighting hard to remove threats from the body but failing to do so because it can’t keep up with high demand.
Under normal circumstances, your spleen is about the size of your fist and hardly even detectable to touch during a physical exam. However, when you’re sick or your lymphatic system is triggered for another reason, your spleen swells up and can dramatically grow in size. (2)
An enlarged spleen can sometimes be very noticeable and painful, but surprisingly most people don’t have any symptoms at all and aren’t even aware of the problem they’re experiencing! While an enlarged spleen isn’t always a health concern, it usually points to the fact that the body is trying to defend itself more than usual — and that means it’s a good idea to figure out why that is before it escalates into a bigger and more serious problem.
The Role of the Spleen
The spleen is a brown, oval-shaped organ located in the upper left side of the abdomen just below the rib cage. Part of the lymphatic system, it performs a number of important functions in the body that protect us from the effects of outside “invaders,” stress and certain deficiencies. Think of your lymphatic system like this: If your body were a city, the organs and fluids that make up the lymphatic system would be the policemen, firefighters and the garbage men.
Probably the single most important thing the spleen does is produce antibodies that fight against bacteria and other microbes. In addition, spleen function includes helping keep the blood clean, transporting and balancing fluid levels, maintaining blood platelets, and ushering waste away from muscle and joint tissue.
The spleen ultimately controls the level of circulating red blood cells within the blood, removing old and worn-out red cells that can no longer do their jobs. It also very importantly fights infections by producing phagocytes and lymphocytes, two types of protective white blood cells.
Most health problems associated with the spleen involve the spleen becoming enlarged — and when this happens, the risk for a “ruptured spleen” also goes up. Like some of our other digestive system organs, including the liver and gallbladder, the spleen is especially vulnerable to the effects of various “toxins” or parasites entering the body, along with chemicals we take in from drugs, even some medications and prescriptions.
The spleen is prone to becoming easily overworked when liver function is poor, and surprisingly some believe the spleen is usually more likely to develop problems when your diet is “damp, cold and raw.” Traditional systems of medicine, including Ayurvedic medicine, believed that a cold or damp environment, eating too many salty or sour foods, overexerting yourself, and poor digestion all make someone more susceptible to spleen and liver damage. (3)
The results of a suffering spleen? An enlarged, malfunctioning spleen can lead to frequent infections; low energy; anemic symptoms; changes in appetite, body weight, digestion and blood flow; and more. If you want to maintain a strong immune system, avoid becoming sick, and retain muscle and joint health into older age, then you want to be careful to take good care of your entire lymphatic system, including, of course, your spleen!
Since symptoms can sometimes be nonexistent, or at least minimal enough to not cause any concerns, an enlarged spleen is usually first discovered during a routine physical exam, catching most people by total surprise. Normally in adults, doctors can’t feel the spleen when it isn’t enlarged, so if they press below the rib cage during an exam and notice a swollen spleen, it points to the fact that something isn’t right.
In a healthy person, the normal weight and size of the spleen can vary a lot depending on factors like age, sex, body weight and body surface area. For example, studies suggest that the spleen can range from 58 grams in a 79-year-old woman to 170 grams in a 20-year-old man. An enlarged spleen that isn’t normal for someone’s body type and age can possibly signify the presence of disease, a virus, cognitive disorders or other issues (although this isn’t always the case, so don’t get alarmed just yet!).
Enlarged spleen symptoms can include:
- indigestion or feeling uncomfortable when eating, especially after a large meal
- spleen pain and tenderness, usually on the upper left side of the abdomen
- pain that has spread from the abdomen to the left shoulder
- spleen pain when taking deep breaths or moving around
- low energy levels, possibly even chronic fatigue
- symptoms of jaundice (including yellowing of the skin)
- symptoms of anemia (4)
- unexplained weight loss
- frequent infections (such as ear, urinary tract, respiratory or sinus infections)
- bleeding and bruising easily
Unfortunately, one of the side effects of a damaged spleen is becoming more susceptible to illnesses and feeling very fatigued. That’s because normally the spleen works as part of the body’s natural “drainage network,” producing protective white blood cells and carrying waste and bacteria away from the body. The spleen produces white blood cells that capture and destroy bacteria, dead cells and tissue, and other outside particles that make their way into the body and circulate via the bloodstream.
As blood filters through the spleen, it’s cleaned, and threatening microbes are engulfed and filtered out. Without the spleen working properly, we can’t maintain red and white blood cells we need for ongoing energy or produce enough platelets that are required for blot clotting.
The spleen can become swollen for a lot of different reasons, some more concerning than others. For example, viral infections, high alcohol intake, cirrhosis of the liver and parasitic infections are all risk factors for an enlarged spleen. Some of the ways you can prolong the health of your spleen include avoiding a poor diet high in processed foods, limiting the amount of over-the-counter or prescription drugs you take, which helps cleanse the liver, only drinking alcohol in moderation, and quitting smoking or ever using recreational drugs.
Enlarged spleen causes include:
- Bacterial infections
- Alcohol or drug use
- Inflammation related to a diet high in chemicals, preservatives, pesticides and other toxins
- Cancer that has spread
- Liver disease or cirrhosis
- Blood diseases characterized by abnormal blood cells
- Disorders of the lymph system
- Autoimmune reactions and disorders, such as arthritis
- Physical trauma to the spleen or an injury (such as a sports injury)
One of the most likely causes of an enlarged spleen is an infection, since swelling in the spleen signifies an increase in white blood cells that are trying to attack something threatening. Infections that can impact the spleen include viruses like mononucleosis, parasitic infections or infections caused by bacteria.
Leishmaniasis, a type of parasitic disease found in parts of the tropics, subtropics and southern Europe, can lead to an enlarged spleen. Leishmaniasis is believed to affect about 200,000–400,000 people every year and develops after coming into contact with parasites, including infected sand flies. Symptoms can remain “silent” or can cause skin sores, ulcers, weight loss, fever and pain, in addition to swollen lymph nodes and an enlarged spleen and liver.
Other types of parasites that can lead to enlarged spleen include: malaria, toxoplasmosis, viscera larva migrans and schistosomiasis. (5) If these are possible causes of your condition — for example, because you traveled to another continent and might have been bitten by an infected insect — your doctor will work with you to specifically treat symptoms and stabilize you before problems can worsen.
Cancer is another reason that someone can suffer spleen problems, especially leukemia (cancer of the white blood cells that take over normal healthy cells) or lymphoma (cancer of the lymph tissue). Drugs and alcohol are capable of causing problems in the spleen because they directly affect how splenic cells work. Drugs provoke severe hemolysis, which is the rupture or destruction of red blood cells. This is associated with decreased immune function and splenomegaly.
Sometimes the spleen is damaged or enlarged because of side effects or disturbances in other organs, such as the liver or other parts of the immune system. (6) For example, an enlarged spleen can develop because the liver becomes congested and overworked (resulting in liver disease in some cases), trying hard to usher toxins out the body as quickly as possible, but becoming overwhelmed in the process. (7)
How to Diagnose and Treat an Enlarged Spleen
If your doctor suspects an enlarged spleen because he or she feels something unusual during a physical, your doctor might decide to further investigate by using imaging tests, blood tests and other ways to assess how enlarged the spleen has become. Sometimes an ultrasound or computerized tomography (CT) test will be done.
If your health care provider suspects you might be infected with a parasite, your physician look for symptoms like a fever or skin rash and access blood counts (including a low red blood cell count causing anemia and low white blood cell count) since infected patients usually experience both. Your doctor will work with you to tackle the root causes of the enlarged spleen, since left unmanaged this condition can become very serious and even deadly in some cases.
Treatment options for dealing with an enlarged spleen are usually aimed at reducing any noticeable symptoms and pain, while also tackling the underlying causes like a chronic disease, diet, lifestyle, infection and so on. Only as a last resort would a doctor decide to perform surgery to remove an enlarged spleen. For most people, luckily it’s possible to remove the trigger that causes an enlarged spleen before surgery becomes necessary. (8)
Remember, the spleen is necessary and important for keeping the body guarded from disease and bacterial infections, so removing it comes with risks of its own. After surgery to remove the spleen, further down the line someone can become more prone to infections and becoming sick since removing the spleen means the body is left with one less line of defense.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways you can help protect yourself from developing or worsening an enlarged spleen.
1. Protect the Spleen from Rupturing
Anyone who has an enlarged spleen should be careful to avoid any type of rough contact, especially near the abdomen, since this can cause a ruptured spleen. This means avoiding contact sports (like football, basketball, wrestling, hockey, etc.) and limiting any type of physical activity where the spleen can become further damaged.
An important precaution to take is to always wear a seat belt when driving, since a car accident is likely to cause even more injury to the spleen. Remember that not every case of an enlarged spleen is problematic, so find out from your doctor first what types of activities you’re cleared to do.
2. Eat a Nutrient-Dense Diet
Historically in Eastern medicine, the spleen is viewed as one of the most important organs to well-being, strength and immunity. That’s because it’s more than just a guardian and organ capable of managing blood cells — the spleen also helps turn nutrients from digested foods into useable fuel.
In Ancient Chinese Medicine and other schools of Eastern medicine, an unhealthy spleen is one of the key contributors to fatigue and anemia, and it can impact how other digestive organs work, including the colon, uterus, rectum, liver or stomach.
The best way to support your spleen and entire lymphatic and digestive systems is to eat a diet high in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and essential fluids. This helps lower inflammation and fight free radical damage that can make an enlarged spleen turn into a worsened problem.
A healthy diet can benefit the entire body, including the spleen, which will work more efficiently to carry blood cells and nutrients to tissue, while also removing waste, when you obtain plenty of nutrients. A diet high in plant foods also helps provide enough hydrating water, which is important for helping the spleen rid itself and the body of excess fluids and foreign matter.
Try to avoid eating foods that place stress on your circulatory and immune systems. The more chemicals you obtain through the foods your eat, the more work your liver, spleen and other organs have to do. Foods to limit or eliminate from your diet include: common allergens (like dairy products, gluten, soy, shellfish or nightshades, for example), low-quality animal products, sugary snacks, refined vegetable oils (canola, corn, safflower, sunflower and soybean) and processed foods that contain chemical sprays or toxins.
Some of the key anti-inflammatory foods to load up on include:
- green leafy vegetables
- brightly colored fruits and veggies of all kinds, including cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.) and berries
- lean proteins, especially omega-3 foods like salmon and wild seafood
- nuts and seeds (chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin, etc.)
- unrefined oils like extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil
- herbs, condiments and spices (ginger, capsicum, molasses, turmeric, garlic, for example)
3. Move Your Body
Drainage of the lymphatic system depends heavily on you moving your body regularly. While lymph fluid can move through the lymph nodes and spleen somewhat on its own thanks to gravity and blood circulation, you’re much more prone to illness and swelling when you’re stagnant. Regularly exercising benefits your spleen because it helps keep blood flowing and fluids moving through your body. This is important considering the spleen is responsible for the filtering and transformation of particles within lymph fluids. (9)
Exercise increases blood flow to your digestive organs and engages muscles in your digestive tract, so once the spleen and liver do their jobs to clean the body, more movement further helps usher out waste. Following exercise with foam rolling, massage therapy or infrared sauna treatments is also beneficial for supporting the lymphatic system and helping with detoxification.
Your lymphatic, immune and digestive systems are all vulnerable to the effects of stress. Your brain communicates with organs around your entire body, and every time it suspects that you’re in a threatening situation, hormones are altered that affect your body’s ability to defend itself from threats.
Chronic stress can weaken the immune system and cause inflammation, digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers and much more. (10) To help combat high amounts of stress, make it a priority to try relaxing exercises like being more active, doing hobbies you love, spending time in nature, taking warm baths, breathing exercises and so on.
5. Try Supplements that Support Lymphatic
Several essential oils are beneficial for improving the body’s ability to drain swelling, fight infections, increase blood flow and reduce pain. Essential oils that are useful for targeting swelling in the lymph nodes include lemon, myrrh, oregano, cypress and frankincense oils.
Combine several drops with a carrier oil like jojoba or coconut oil, and massage them over the spleen two to three times per day. Other supplements that can help improve liver health, circulation and fight inflammation include: omega-3 fish oils, turmeric, burdock root, digestive enzymes, activated charcoal and milk thistle.