Spleen for All Seasons

"Yup, I'm old and mysterious and I could tell you stories that'll make you sleep with the lights on."

“Yup, I’m old and mysterious and I could tell you stories that’ll make you sleep with the lights on.”

Oh yes, this is one sketchy organ. The spleen is the epitome of the mysterious old man the townsfolk all whisper about. No one really knows his story accept that he’s always lived in this town (our bodies). As far as organs go, the spleen hardly ever shows up on the 6 o’clock news. Most of us don’t know what it looks like, where it’s located, if it votes republican, democrat, or green party.

The spleen is one of those organs that helped us survive in the womb. When we are born and just fresh out of the wrapper like a snappy, hard pretzel our bodies were still adjusting to an oxygen rich environment. While we were still hitching a ride in Mommy Dearest our bones were still developing and not quite ready for the full time responsibility of being the primary producers of our blood cells (whites and reds). In the early stages of development our liver and spleen jump start us with all the oxygen supplying cells we need. As you develop, your organs pass the baton of blood cell production, or hematopoeisis, until this process is effectively carried out by the bone marrow. What a lot of folks don’t realize is that the spleen never stops looking after those red cells, in fact the spleen receives it’s own blood supply to act as blood filter extraordinaire. The spleen is an incredibly attentive, highly adapted filter to be more exact. Just calling it a filter is like saying the Iron Chef makes a mean peanut butter & jelly sandwich or that Yanni plays a mean chop sticks (which I’m sure he does). The liver receives a much larger blood supply and carries out more of the blood cleanup but the spleen is considerably more meticulous.

Ah, now why can't anatomy be this cut and dry all the time?

Ah, now why can’t anatomy be this cut and dry all the time?

The spleen can selectively remove the misshaped or malformed cells from circulation. To a red cell, shape and form is everything. They have to be firm and flexible to squeeze through vessels without leaking their precious hemoglobin payload. The spleen acts as a final physical exam for new reds entering the bloodstream. It squeezes them through tight fitting vessels and has it’s very own elite team of white cells to pick off trash along the red cell membranes(precipitated proteins or remnants of DNA), changing their shape, roughing them up. Cells that make it to the other side have essentially proven themselves worthy to deliver oxygen another day.

The spleen also acts as a kind of lymph node whereby a population of B and T cells reside to take part in the immune response. It has so many macrophages scouting the blood for trash that we typically classify the spleen as a lymphoid organ. It also houses a backup supply of blood for the body to compensate for blood loss.

So ok… yes, when someone has to have an enlarged or infected spleen removed (splenectomy) they can live a perfectly normal, healthy life without it. They are susceptible to a few more infections (especially the very young), but considering that they are an organ light they do pretty well in most cases.

This is my problem..I really don’t like referring to the spleen as an accessory organ or dispensable based only on the fact that we don’t die when we get them removed. I mean if science only considered something important based on whether or not something bad happened to us if it was gone then we would get nowhere as a civilization. So let me just say that perhaps the full functionality of the spleen is yet to be realized. Once upon a time someone said “there must be something in the air too tiny to see that can cause disease.” Science has always been wide open baby. Stay classy my friends and never stop learning.

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