How Every Vital Organ Keeps You Alive - And What Happens When It Stops Working

Being alive is hard work, especially for our internal organs. They are constantly working to keep our bodies from shutting down, and we in turn have to make sure that our organs are getting everything they need to do their jobs properly. Not all of our most precious organs can be replaced, so it's important to know how each vital organ works and what you can do to stay healthy.

Organ failure is one of the biggest killers in America, with heart disease coming out on top as the single most deadly ailment. So, what happens when organs stop functioning properly and is there any way to prevent the worst? While many people know certain ailments are deadly, what actually happens to the body during a heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure? These are questions that millions are forced to ask every day, and ones that could mean the difference between life and death. Hopefully, the below facts about vital organs can help you beat the reaper for just a little while longer.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

  • Brain
    Photo: Sanger Brown M.D. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain


    What It Does: Your brain is the most important organ in your entire body. It is responsible for pretty much everything you do, both consciously and unconsciously. All of your thoughts, movements, and emotions emanate from this organ, and it is responsible for keeping your entire biological system in working order. Without your brain, the rest of your organs would have no idea what they're supposed to do. Your brain is also responsible for processing all the information gathered by your sensory organs, allowing you to experience all of the sights, sounds, and smells the world has to offer. 

    What Happens When It Breaks: It should go without saying that brain health is critical, and that any damage the brain incurs can be catastrophic. How your brain reacts to an injury really depends on the severity of the blow, but it's almost never good. If your brain receives a blunt-force injury, you could experience a massive range of symptoms. Nausea, vomiting, confusion, loss of consciousness, internal bleeding, overactive senses, and mood swings are just a taste of what can go wrong after a traumatic brain injury. There are also a host of diseases that can attack the brain and do serious, lasting damage. Some degenerative brain disorders, like Alzheimer's or dementia, can even be fatal. 

    What You Can Do To Fix It: The brain is one of the most sensitive organs, and one of the most difficult to repair. Oftentimes, brain damage is irreversible and responds poorly to treatment. Brain damage is a nasty ordeal, and the best way to deal with it is to not injure your brain in the first place. Your skull is designed to maximize protection of the brain, but avoiding high-risk activities is critical to avoiding brain damage. Some high-contact sports, like football and rugby, have been associated with higher risk of brain damage. Helmets have also been proven to lessen the severity of accidents involving motorcycles, bicycles, and other dangerous activities. Some physical issues can be corrected via brain surgery, and new techniques are being pioneered to cure difficult diseases like Alzheimer's or damage caused by ailments like aneurysms, head injuries, and blood clots. 

  • Heart
    Photo: Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.5


    What It Does: Your heart is responsible for keeping you alive, and it does this by pumping oxygen-rich blood to every corner of your body. The heart is both a muscle and an organ, and powerful electrical signals regulate its ability to pump blood at a steady pace. Every artery and vein in your body connects back to the heart. Fresh, oxygenated blood flows through your arteries to the different parts of your body, and your veins work to send deoxygenated blood back to the heart to start the cycle all over again. 

    What Happens When It Breaks: Without a healthy heart, your entire body is at risk of collapse. A lack of blood flow can cause catastrophic effects almost instantly. Your brain needs the oxygen and nutrients in your blood in order to function, and even a few minutes without fresh blood can lead to permanent brain damage. When blood flow stops, all of your organs are at risk of complete failure. Your heart doesn't even need to shut down completely to cause a blood flow issue. Plaque buildup in your arteries and veins can make it difficult for blood to get where it needs to go, and a complete blockage can cause a deadly heart attack or stroke. 

    What You Can Do To Fix It: As you get older, you will become more susceptible to heart-related issues. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, and preventative measures starting from a young age are your best bet to avoid heart failure. Avoiding foods high in fat, salt, and cholestorol, which all can lead to arterial plaque buildup, is one of the best ways to ensure your heart remains healthy. Exercise is also essential for maintaining a healthy heart, and people with more sedentary lifestyles are at a higher risk for heart disease than people who stay active.

    If something does happen to your heart, you may have to get surgery in order to correct the issue. In extreme cases, you may have to get a heart transplant to replace the unhealthy organ altogether. There are also bypass surgeries that can use healthy veins and arteries in your body to replace damaged or clogged ones to fix certain blood flow issues. 

  • Lungs

    What They Do: Everybody needs to breathe, and that's where your lungs come in. The lungs are tasked with extracting the oxygen from the air you breathe, as well as expelling dangerous waste products like carbon dioxide from your body. The collected oxygen is then deposited into your bloodstream, where it can be pumped throughout the body by your heart. The average person will breath 25,000 times per day, and it's a process that is never supposed to stop. 

    What Happens When They Break: If your lungs fail to properly take in air, you will be at a serious risk for a number of dangerous ailments. If you put all lung diseases together into one group, they are considered the third most lethal killer of Americans. There are many diseases that can affect the lungs, some of which impair the intake of oxygen while others can see the lungs filling with various fluids and bacterium. Without a steady stream of oxygen to the bloodstream, there can be potentially fatal consequences. 

    What You Can Do To Fix Them: For serious conditions, it is possible to get a lung transplant. You only really need one healthy lung to survive, although it is not an ideal situation. Some patients with aggressive lung cancers can be cured by the removal of the affected lung, but the procedure comes with lifelong consequences. People with only one lung tend to experience shortness of breath frequently and need to move slower and do less overall. One of the most common causes of lung disease is smoking, so any smokers who want to live healthy lives should consider quitting immediately. 

  • Liver
    Photo: Henry Vandyke Carter / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain


    What It Does: The liver is the largest organ in the human body, but it's also one of the most poorly understood. It has several  jobs, all of which are extremely important. Your liver acts as a sort of filter by removing toxins and waste products from your blood, and it also plays a large part in the digesting and transferring of nutrients from your food to the rest of your body. It is the organ that transforms your food into energy.

    What Happens When It Breaks: Your liver is tough, one of the toughest organs in your body. A damaged liver can keep doing its job for some time, and it will even work after sections of it are removed entirely. However, your liver is not invincible. There are a lot of ways to damage your liver, and most of them won't show any symptoms until it's too late. Since the liver is responsible for removing toxins from the body, heavy alcohol and drug use can take a serious toll on the organ's health. Obesity and certain diseases like hepatitis can also cause damage. Liver failure is deadly and acute liver failure can be fatal within only a few days, as poisons that would normally be filtered out start to accumulate in your body. 

    What You Can Do To Fix It: If you're at the point where you are dealing with total liver failure, all you can do is hope for a liver transplant. There is no other way to deal with a dying liver and there is a long waiting list to receive a new one. They are extremely rare to come by, and your chances of getting one are worse if you have a history with alcohol or drugs. Preventative measures are the best way to ensure a healthy liver. Avoid alcohol if you are at a risk of liver disease, and weight loss can go a long way in keeping your liver healthy. 

  • Kidneys
    Photo: Roxbury-de / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain


    What They Do: Your kidneys work in tandem to filter your blood of liquid waste, and they turn that waste into urine. The kidneys pass off this urine to the bladder, which in turn passes it out of your body through the urinary tract. This ensures your blood remains consistent and healthy, and that foreign materials don't accumulate in your bloodstream. The kidneys also produce certain hormones that are instrumental to our wellbeing, and they also regulate our electrolyte levels by passing excesses out through urine.  

    What Happens When They Break: When your kidneys fail, all the toxins that they are responsible for removing can start piling up in your body. Kidney failure can also cause your blood pressure to rise and can halt the production of new blood cells. This can be debilitating, but modern technology has done a lot to lessen the severity of kidney failure. 

    What You Can Do To Fix Them: Thanks to modern medicine, kidney failure is in no way a death sentence. The great thing about kidneys is that everyone has a spare! It is possible to survive with only one working kidney. There are also a few treatment options to deal with kidney failure, including a transplant and dialysis. Dialysis is a process in which the filtering normally done by your kidneys is performed by some other mechanism, either with a machine at a hospital or by using another part of your body. Peritoneal dialysis is a kind of treatment that uses the lining of your own abdomen in place of your kidneys to remove toxins from your bloodstream.