A ruptured spleen is a medical emergency that occurs as a result of a break in your spleen's surface. Your spleen, situated just under your rib cage on your left side, helps your body fight infection and filter old blood cells from your bloodstream.
A forceful blow to your abdomen — during a sporting accident, a fistfight or a car crash, for example — is the usual cause of a ruptured spleen. If you have an enlarged spleen, a less forceful trauma might cause rupture. Without emergency treatment, the internal bleeding caused by a ruptured spleen can be life-threatening.
Some people with ruptured spleens need emergency surgery. Others can be treated with several days of hospital care.
Signs and symptoms of a ruptured spleen include:
- Pain in the upper left abdomen
- Tenderness when you touch the upper left abdomen
- Left shoulder pain
- Confusion, lightheadedness or dizziness
When to see a doctor
A ruptured spleen is a medical emergency. Seek emergency care after an injury if your signs and symptoms indicate that you may have a ruptured spleen.
A spleen can rupture due to:
- Injury to the left side of the body. A ruptured spleen is typically caused by a blow to the left upper abdomen or the left lower chest, such as might happen during sporting accidents, fistfights and car crashes. An injured spleen can rupture soon after the abdominal trauma or, in some cases, days or weeks after the injury.
- An enlarged spleen. Your spleen can become enlarged when blood cells accumulate in the spleen. An enlarged spleen can be caused by various underlying problems, such as mononucleosis and other infections, liver disease, and blood cancers.
A ruptured spleen can cause life-threatening bleeding into your abdominal cavity.
If you've been diagnosed with an enlarged spleen, ask your doctor whether you need to avoid activities for several weeks that could cause it to rupture. These might include contact sports, heavy lifting and other activities that increase the risk of abdominal trauma.
Tests and procedures used to diagnose a ruptured spleen include:
- Physical exam. Your doctor will press on your abdomen to determine the size of your spleen and whether it's tender.
- Blood tests. Blood tests will evaluate factors such as platelet count and how well your blood clots.
- Checking for blood in your abdominal cavity. In emergency situations, your doctor might either use an ultrasound or draw a sample of fluid from your abdomen with a needle. If the sample reveals blood in your abdomen, you might be referred for emergency surgery.
- Imaging tests of your abdomen. If your diagnosis isn't clear, your doctor might recommend an abdominal CT scan, possibly with contrast dye, or another imaging test to look for other possible causes of your symptoms.
Treatment for a ruptured spleen will depend on the severity of your condition. Some people require immediate surgery. Others heal with rest and time.
Many small or moderate-sized injuries to the spleen can heal without surgery. You're likely to stay in the hospital while doctors observe your condition and provide nonsurgical care, such as blood transfusions, if necessary.
You might have periodic follow-up CT scans to check whether your spleen has healed or to determine whether you need surgery.
Surgical and other procedures
Surgery for a ruptured spleen can include:
- Repairing the spleen. Your surgeon might be able to use stitches or other techniques to repair the rupture.
Removing the spleen (splenectomy). If it's necessary to remove your spleen, you'll be at increased risk of serious infections, such as sepsis. The risk of sepsis is highest in young children, especially the first two years after the spleen has been removed.
Your doctor might recommend ways to reduce the risk of infection, such as vaccinations against bacteria, including meningococcus, pneumonia and Haemophilus influenzae b. You may also be prescribed an oral antibiotic to prevent infections.
- Removing part of the spleen. It might be possible to remove only part of your spleen, depending on the rupture. Partial splenectomy reduces the risk of infection that results from removing the entire spleen.
Spleen surgery is generally safe, but any surgery has risks, such as bleeding, blood clots, infection and pneumonia.