If you’re like many of my patients, you may be a Boomer, i.e., between the age of 44 and 62. As such, you may have a unique health risk with regards to the health and care of your spleen. As a teenager, you might have had a case of the “kissing bug” (mononucleosis) which was your first exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus. Pretty common, as it’s estimated that 95% of Americans are infected with EBV by the time they are 40 years old!
However, many people get infected with EBV as infants or toddlers and don’t know it. Most the time, EBV lies dormant and you never know it’s there, though some research states it may be responsible for a whole host of chronic ailments such as chronic sore throats, ear infections, joint and muscle pains, and memory problems, to name a few. Other illnesses like multiple sclerosis may be related to past EBV exposure and there is ongoing controversy as to whether chronic fatigue syndrome and lupus may also arise from past EBV exposure. Because EBV constantly reproduces itself in your white cells that are created in your spleen, this can put your spleen at higher risk for enlargement and possible rupture. Prevention of these conditions is what I’d like to talk to you about.
How Do You Get An Enlarged/Ruptured Spleen?
Your spleen is the organ responsible for filtering out old, worn out red blood cells and produces white blood cells. White blood cells, or lymphocytes, are the ones that go to work making antibodies when you get an infection. Your spleen is located under your ribcage on the upper left side of your abdomen.
About half of people exposed to EBV virus can get an enlarged spleen, 90% being men. This mostly occurs during a current infectious state but periodic EBV flares can occur when your immune system becomes run down (see causes below) that may also cause the spleen to enlarge.
In its enlarged state, the spleen drops down further into your abdominal cavity and may no longer be completely protected by your rib cage. This puts you at higher risk for injuring your spleen if you suffer some type of abdominal blow or injury. This is why I tell my Boomer patients, especially the guys who engage in certain contact sports, weight lifting, boxing, even just rough-housing with their kids, or grandkids, to be careful not to have trauma to their abdominal area so as not to injure their spleen.
An enlarged spleen is most always felt on physical exam. If you have blood work that tests positive for EBV virus exposure, or if you have a flare of it, you should have a physical exam to determine if your spleen has enlarged and, perhaps, dropped down. If so, your doctor may want you to have an x-ray or CT scan of the abdomen to see how enlarged your spleen is and how far it has displaced in your abdominal cavity. Here are some other symptoms of an enlarged spleen:
• A full feeling in your stomach even though you may not have eaten much
• Back pain or abdominal pain near where your spleen is located
• Pain that moves from your abdominal area to your left shoulder
Rupture of the spleen is not common, and only occurs in about 0.1% to 0.2% of infectious mono/EBV patients. It can, however, occur with direct trauma to the abdomen even in non-EBV positive persons. If you experience any of these symptoms get medical help immediately:
• Left upper abdominal pain that travels to the left shoulder
• Shortness of breath – pain that worsens on breathing.
• Lightheadedness, confusion, blurry vision, fainting (if the rupture is bleeding into the abdomen).
Treatment of a ruptured spleen depends on how badly it has been injured. In some rupture cases, the spleen may need to be surgically removed and in other cases it may be able to just heal on its own.
What Can You Do To Boost Your Spleen Health?
To keep your spleen healthy and non-enlarged, take extra care to keep your immune system functioning optimally by observing the following:
• No smoking – One of the top immune system killers.
• Limit alcohol – Some people experience symptoms of EBV flares after drinking large amounts of alcohol. Limit to social occasions or 2 drinks a few times a week.
• Exercise: Regular aerobic exercise has been proven to boost your immune system.
• Optimize nutrition: Be sure you are getting enough Vitamin D3 a supreme immune system booster, as well as powerful antioxidants of Vitamin C, E, reservatrol.
• Avoid other viral infections: Wash your hands frequently to avoid colds and flu. Use protection against sexually transmitted HIV, HSV (herpes) and HPV (papillomavirus) infections.
• Adequate rest – not enough sleep can wreak havoc with your immune system.
As I tell my over 40 patients, even if you have not been exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus you can still damage your spleen through injury to the abdomen in the ways listed above. The good news is that if you take care to boost your immune system, and avoid other viral infections, you can prevent flares of EBV and risk of your spleen becoming enlarged/ruptured will remain low.
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