Myeloproliferative Neoplasms and Your Enlarged Spleen

If your physician told you that you have a blood disorder you might wonder, "Then why is my spleen so big?" "What does my spleen have to do with my blood?" Or even "What is the spleen?" These are all excellent questions. Let's start with the function of the spleen, then discuss why the spleen enlarges in myeloproliferative neoplasms, and finally review treatment options for splenomegaly (enlargement of the spleen).

Physician and patient discussing treatment for enlarged spleen
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Spleen Basics

The spleen is a relatively small organ (about the size of your fist) that resides on the left side of the abdomen underneath the ribcage. The spleen is made of two types of tissue: the red pulp, which filters the red blood cells, and the white pulp—part of the immune system.

In the red pulp, old or misshapen red blood cells (such as sickle cells) are removed from the circulation. The red pulp also helps the body filter out infections, particularly certain bacterial infections. The white pulp helps produce lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, that help make antibodies to infections or in response to immunizations.

Although these are the major functions of the spleen once you are born, prior to birth, the spleen is the major producer of blood cells (hematopoiesis). Towards the end of gestation and after birth, the bone marrow takes over this production.

Why the Spleen Becomes Enlarged

In polycythemia vera, an excessive number of red blood cells are produced, resulting in an increased number of red blood cells that need to be filtered by the spleen, leading to splenomegaly.

In primary myelofibrosis, the bone marrow is damaged by fibrosis, making it more difficult to produce blood cells. In this case, the spleen may enlarge to support blood cell production outside of the bone marrow. This also can occur in the liver usually to a smaller degree.

Symptoms of Having an Enlarged Spleen

Many people who have an enlarged spleen may not know, especially if the spleen is only slightly enlarged. Others might report a "fullness" in the abdomen. When the spleen is significantly enlarged, it can press on the stomach, which may give you the sensation of feeling like you just ate a big meal when you only ate a small amount.

The spleen is fragile and normally protected by the ribcage. As it enlarges, it is no longer protected and may be prone to injury, particularly trauma from a car accident or contact sport (like football or hockey). Trauma to an enlarged spleen can cause massive bleeding.

How Can Splenomegaly Be Treated?

If your spleen is only mildly enlarged, treatment may not be needed. Your physician will likely monitor your blood counts and the size of your spleen closely.

If treatment is needed, there are three options: medical therapy, splenectomy, and radiotherapy.

Medical Therapy

In general, these medications are aimed at reducing blood cell production. One of the most common medications used to reduce spleen size in the myeloproliferative neoplasms is hydroxyurea.

Other therapies may include busulfan, melphalan, alpha interferon, thalidomide, or lenalidomide. Prednisone might be given with thalidomide or lenalidomide. These drugs may be used to treat the underlying disease that is causing the spleen to become enlarged.

Second-line therapies include cladribine (also called 2CDA), daunorubicin, decitabine, or 5-azacytidine. Your physician will choose your therapy based on your specific diagnosis, other medical problems, and the side effects of treatment.

Splenectomy

After medication, the second treatment choice is splenectomy, which is surgical removal of the spleen.

The most significant risk of removing the spleen is the potential for serious life-threatening infections. If you haven't already, you should receive specific vaccines to protect you from pneumococcal and meningococcal infections prior to splenectomy. Once the spleen is removed, you will likely be placed on antibiotics to prevent these infections.

Radiotherapy

A third treatment option is radiotherapy (also called radiation therapy). Radiation is aimed at the spleen which can help shrink it in size. These effects are temporary so splenic radiotherapy is considered palliative, treatment aimed at minimizing symptoms to improve quality of life. This may be a good option for people who are not great candidates for splenectomy.

A Word From Verywell

There are many things to consider when deciding if or how to treat splenomegaly in polycythemia vera or primary myelofibrosis. Make sure to discuss with your physician the benefits and possible side effects of these treatments.

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