Cryptic tonsils immediately following surgical removal (bilateral tonsillectomy).
Tonsillectomy is a surgical procedure in which both palatine tonsils (hereafter called "tonsils") are removed from a recess in the side of the pharynx called the tonsillar fossa. The procedure is mainly performed for recurrent or chronic sore throat (sometimes labelled tonsillitis) and for sleep-disordered breathing including obstructive sleep apnea and snoring. It is also carried out more rarely for peritonsillar abscess, PFAPA (Periodic Fever, Aphthous stomatitis, Pharyngitis and Adenitis), guttate psoriasis, nasal airway obstruction, tonsil cancer and diphtheria carrier state. For children, tonsillectomy is usually combined with an adenoidectomy, which is the removal of the adenoid (also known as the "pharyngeal tonsil" or "nasopharyngeal tonsil"). The combination of these two procedures is called an "adenotonsillectomy" or simply "T&A". Adenoidectomy is uncommon in adults in whom the adenoid is much smaller than in children and rarely causes symptoms.
Tonsillectomy is controversial as its benefits are only modest and temporary whereas the operation has recognised hazards (including deaths). There are also strong indications that tonsillectomy compromises the immune system in the long run, especially when performed at a young age. For example, there is evidence that tonsillectomy is associated with an increased risk of cancer, autoimmune diseases, infectious diseases, respiratory diseases, allergic diseases and is linked to higher mortality rates.
Tonsillectomy is nowadays performed much less frequently than in the 1950s through 1970s and although rates are still declining, it remains a common surgical procedure in children in the United States and several other western countries.
- 1 History
- 2 Medical uses
- 2.1 Effectiveness
- 2.2 Overtreatment with tonsillectomy
- 2.3 Mortality and serious complications following tonsillectomy
- 2.4 Long term safety of tonsillectomy
- 3 Surgical procedure
- 4 Post-operative care
- 5 Image gallery
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
Tonsillectomies have been practiced for over 2,000 years, with varying popularity over the centuries. The procedure is claimed in some books as "Hindu medicine" about 1000 BCE (non-evidence based literature). Others refer to it as cleaning of tonsil using the nail of the index finger. Roughly a millennium later the Roman aristocrat Aulus Cornelius Celsus (25 BCE – 50 CE) described a procedure whereby using the finger (or a blunt hook if necessary), the tonsil was separated from the neighboring tissue before being cut out. Galen (121–200 CE) was the first to advocate the use of the surgical instrument known as the snare, a practice that was to become common until Aetius (490 CE) recommended partial removal of the tonsil, writing "Those who extirpate the entire tonsil remove, at the same time, structures that are perfectly healthy, and, in this way, give rise to serious Hæmorrhage". In the 7th century Paulus Aegineta (625–690) described a detailed procedure for tonsillectomy, including dealing with the inevitable post-operative bleeding. 1,200 years pass before the procedure is described again with such precision and detail.
The Middle Ages saw tonsillectomy fall into disfavor; Ambroise Pare (1509) wrote it to be "a bad operation" and suggested a procedure that involved gradual strangulation with a ligature. This method was not popular with the patients due to the immense pain it caused and the infection that usually followed. Scottish physician Peter Lowe in 1600 summarized the three methods in use at the time, including the snare, the ligature, and the excision. At the time, the function of the tonsils was thought to be absorption of secretions from the nose; it was assumed that removal of large amounts of tonsillar tissue would interfere with the ability to remove these secretions, causing them to accumulate in the larynx, resulting in hoarseness. For this reason, physicians like Dionis (1672) and Lorenz Heister censured the procedure.
In 1828, physician Philip Syng Physick modified an existing instrument originally designed by Benjamin Bell for removing the uvula; the instrument, known as the tonsil guillotine (and later as a tonsillotome), became the standard instrument for tonsil removal for over 80 years. By 1897, it became more common to perform complete rather than partial removal of the tonsil after American physician Ballenger noted that partial removal failed to completely alleviate symptoms in a majority of cases. His results using a technique involving removal of the tonsil with a scalpel and forceps were much better than partial removal; tonsillectomy using the guillotine eventually fell out of favor in America.
Tonsillectomy is mainly undertaken for sleep apnea and recurrent or chronic tonsillitis. Because the use of the term "tonsillitis" is not very precise in clinical practice, a more accurate definition is that patients have a sore throat accompanied by specific symptoms suggesting bacterial infection. These symptoms are similar to those identified in the Centor criteria. There is no evidence to suggest that tonsils should be removed only because they look large.
A study, led by professor of pediatrics Jack Paradise and published in 1984, identified that children suffering from frequent, severe sore throats benefitted modestly from tonsillectomy. This meant at least:
Seven or more in a year, five or more per year for two years, or three or more per year for three years.
These sore throats must be documented and be accompanied by either fever, enlarged lymph glands, pus seen on the tonsils or confirmed bacterial infection. Paradise also demonstrated in 1978 that most children with undocumented sore throats rarely continued to suffer from frequent sore throats. He also demonstrated that in less severely affected children or children in whom the sore throats were not documented tonsillectomy was not sufficiently effective to justify surgery. Further randomised controlled trials have essentially confirmed these findings and are summarised in a Cochrane review.
In 2012, 28 years after the original Paradise clinical trial, the American Academy of Otolaryngology & Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS) guidelines adopted the Paradise criteria, stating tonsillectomy is indicated as follows:
Clinicians may recommend tonsillectomy for recurrent throat infection with a frequency of at least 7 episodes in the past year or at least 5 episodes per year for 2 years or at least 3 episodes per year for 3 years with documentation in the medical record for each episode of sore throat and one or more of the following: temperature >38.3 °C, cervical adenopathy, tonsillar exudates, or positive test for Group A Beta- hemolytic strep.
The panel also recommended:
- Watchful waiting for recurrent throat infection if there have been fewer than 7 documented episodes in the past year or fewer than 5 episodes per year in the past 2 years or fewer than 3 episodes per year in the past 3 years;
- Assessing the child with recurrent throat infection who does not meet criteria in statement 2 for modifying factors that may nonetheless favor tonsillectomy, which may include but are not limited to multiple antibiotic allergy/intolerance, periodic fever, aphthous stomatitis, pharyngitis and adenitis, or history of peritonsillar abscess;
- Asking caregivers of children with sleep-disordered breathing and tonsil hypertrophy about comorbid conditions that might improve after tonsillectomy, including growth retardation, poor school performance, enuresis, and behavioral problems;
- Counseling caregivers about tonsillectomy as a means to improve health in children with abnormal polysomnography who also have tonsil hypertrophy and sleep-disordered breathing;
- Counseling caregivers that sleep-disordered breathing may persist or recur after tonsillectomy and may require further management;
- Advocating for pain management after tonsillectomy and educating caregivers about the importance of managing and reassessing pain; and
- Clinicians who perform tonsillectomy should determine their rate of primary and secondary post-tonsillectomy hemorrhage at least annually.
These recommendations, were made by a body whose members derive a substantial part of their income from undertaking tonsillectomies, which may explain the delay of 28 years (and 14 million childhood tonsillectomies - 28 years x 530,000 per year) before recommending that practice followed the evidence. The claims that tonsillectomy improves poor school performance, bedwetting (enuresis), or behavioural problems are based on "observational before-and-after studies", (i.e. case series), which are prone to bias and very weak evidence.
The scientific evidence indicates that patients with frequent sore throats generally improve over time with or without surgery. In the original Paradise study, of children with frequent, severe sore throats, most children in the control group (who were not scheduled to have tonsillectomy) improved. In fact 14% of children suffered from no sore throats in the next year, which indicates that relatively dramatic improvement (from 7 yearly, 5 in two successive years, or 3 in three successive years to none) is common even in children who do not have surgery.
In severely affected children, tonsillectomy is modestly effective at reducing the frequency and severity of sore throats. Compared to no surgery, children who undergo surgery on average suffer from one sore throat fewer in the next year.
Benefits of surgery last for one or two years after which there is no difference between children with or without surgery as children usually outgrow tonsil related diseases. Because children improve without treatment it may make surgery seem more effective than it really is.
It is also sometimes argued that parents and patients are satisfied with the results of tonsillectomy, but it should be kept in mind that their views are prone to confirmation bias. For other conditions, self-reported improvement after sham surgery is as great as with real surgery. Patient self-report is therefore unreliable in assessing effectiveness. For example, bloodletting was also a treatment popular with patients since antiquity.
Some patients do experience considerable improvement after tonsillectomy, but as noted above this is not surprising as even without surgery 14% of severely affected children have no sore throats in the next year. Therefore, some say that relying on case studies of successful outcomes to demonstrate the value of a treatment is analogous to using reports of lottery winners to assess the value of investing in a lottery ticket.
In the US 77% of tonsillectomies in children are undertaken for obstructive sleep apnoea (usually adenotonsillectomies), but for this there is insufficient evidence to say if this is more effective than no surgery as even without treatment the condition tends to improve with time. Because the effectiveness of tonsillectomy for breathing related problems is not known there are ongoing clinical trials to investigate whether it is effective. The Cochrane review assessed evidence from randomised controlled trials, because these are less prone to bias than studies without a control group and concludes: “high quality evidence indicates no benefit in terms of objective measures of attention and neurocognitive performance compared with watchful waiting”. Data from the UK indicates that the vast majority (77.8%) of children with obstructive sleep apnoea do not ever undergo tonsillectomy, which casts doubt on whether surgery is really necessary.
Which children benefit from tonsillectomy?
This raises questions about which children benefit enough to justify undertaking the operation. Even in children who meet strict criteria indicating that they are severely affected by sore throats, the evidence indicates that there is only a short term benefit. Without tonsillectomy a child who meets these strict criteria will probably have six sore throats in the next two years and one who has surgery will probably have three sore throats in the next two years. After two years there will be little or even no difference in the frequency of sore throats whether or not the child has had surgery. Children with undocumented sore throats (where the severity cannot be assessed) or sore throats that are not as severe do not appear to suffer from as many sore throats in subsequent years and therefore tonsillectomy is not worthwhile.
The strict criteria are that children should have experienced:
- 7 documented sore throats in the previous year, or
- 5 each year in the two previous years, or
- 3 each year in the three previous years
and that sore throats should include documented evidence of enlarged lymph glands, or raised temperature, or positive throat swabs (demonstrating Streptococcal infection) or pus seen on the tonsils.
The term "sore throat" is preferred to "throat infection" or "tonsillitis" because without undertaking throat swabs, doctors cannot reliably distinguish between sore throats caused by infection and those due to other causes. Furthermore, the same patient may be described as suffering from "tonsillitis" or "sore throat" by another, therefore the use of one term rather than the other is as dependent on the doctor as well as the patient, making it an unreliable reason for undertaking surgery. This is why it is important to specify the symptoms (enlarged lymph glands, pus on the tonsils, a measured raised temperature or a throat swab).
Documentation is important because without this, it is not possible to know if sore throats were accompanied by the relevant symptoms. As long ago as 1978 it was demonstrated that 80% of children with histories of undocumented sore throats did not suffer from sore throats as frequently as suggested in the next year. Children with incompletely documented sore throats also do not benefit sufficiently to justify tonsillectomy.
Many people believe that enlarged tonsils are inflamed and should therefore be removed, but this is not necessarily the case as the tonsils reach their maximum size between the ages of 5 and 7 and shrink afterwards. Also, enlarged tonsils may very well be a consequence of disease rather than its cause. Therefore, enlargement should only be considered a valid reason for surgery if the tonsils are so large that they are causing airway obstruction and patients meet the appropriate criteria. It is generally agreed that even when complaints are severe, not performing surgery will not cause serious complications. It is striking that the great majority of children who consult with any of the main reasons given for tonsillectomy do not ever have surgery.
Overtreatment with tonsillectomy
There are several indications that far too many tonsillectomies have been performed worldwide.
Variation in tonsillectomy rates
There are significant variations in tonsillectomy rates, both between and within countries. As it is unlikely that recurrent sore throats vary in frequency between countries it suggests that many, tonsillectomies may in fact be done without sufficient medical justification. (The Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care.) In 2015, tonsillectomy rates in the Netherlands, Belgium, Finland and Norway were at least twice those in the UK but rates in Spain, Italy and Poland were at least a quarter lower. Childhood tonsillectomy rates in the USA are among the highest in the world and are three times higher than in England. Tonsillectomy rates vary considerably between even quite similar countries: rates are three times higher in Croatia than Slovenia.
A 2010 study in England found the annual tonsillectomy rate per 100,000 between 2000 and 2005 was 754 in the highest region, the national average was 304 and the lowest region was 102. This means there is a seven-fold difference between the region with the highest tonsillectomy rate and the region with the lowest one. In 2006, Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson revealed that unnecessary tonsillectomies and unnecessary hysterectomies combined cost the British National Health Service 21 million Pounds a year.
British study into the justification of tonsillectomy
In 2018, a study of the medical records of 1,630,807 UK children found 15,760 had sufficient sore throats to justify tonsillectomy, but only 13.6% (2144) underwent surgery. This means that even in children who experience frequent, severe sore throats, the vast majority do not undergo tonsillectomy, suggesting it is not essential even in severely affected children. The same study found 18,281 children who had undergone tonsillectomy, but of these only 11.7% (2144) had evidence-based indications (i.e. frequent enough sore throats to justify surgery). This did not change over 12 years from 2005 to 2016. The vast majority of tonsillectomies were undertaken for indications which did not have an evidence-base: five to six sore throats in one year (12.4%), two to four sore throats in one year (44.6%), sleep disordered breathing (12.3%), or obstructive sleep apnoea (3.9%). In the UK therefore, most children who undergo tonsillectomy probably do not benefit and most children who might benefit do not undergo tonsillectomy. The study says that 32,500 out of the 37,000 children who have their tonsils removed annually "are unlikely to benefit". No similar study has been undertaken in any other country. Therefore, it is not known if the situation is better or worse elsewhere. However tonsillectomy rates are lower in the UK than in many countries including the USA Netherlands and Germany.
Table: Numbers of children (from 1.6 million children between 2005 and 2016 in the UK) identified with possible indications for tonsillectomy and the numbers who subsequently undergo tonsillectomy.
|Consultation which might be considered an indication for tonsillectomy||Number of children consulting with this indication||Proportion with this indication undergoing tonsillectomy (%)||Proportion of all tonsillectomies attributable to this indication (%)|
|Aphthous stomatitis, pharyngitis & cervical adenitis syndrome||435||3.4%||0.1%|
|Obstructive sleep apnoea||3,185||22.2%||3.9%|
|Other sleep disordered breathing||15,205||14.8%||12.3%|
|Recurrent sore throats / tonsillitis (episodes per year)|
|5 to 6 (episodes per year)||25,420||8.9%||12.4%|
|3 to 4 (episodes per year)||170,687||3.2%||30.1%|
|2 to 4 (episodes per year) with guttate / chronic psoriasis||939||3.7%||0.2%|
|2 to 4 (episodes per year) with glomerulonephritis||148||4.7%||0.0%|
|2 (episodes per year)||251,247||1%||14.3%|
|1 (episodes per year)||446,275||0.4%||9.9%|
|No indication identified||701,266||0.1%||4.7%|
Source: Šumilo et al. 2018
It is a well known fact that, in general, surgeons who are paid fee-for-service reimbursements, are more inclined to perform surgery and therefore perform unnecessary surgery more often than surgeons who are paid a fixed salary. For example, in 1968 a Canadian study pointed out that ENT specialists working on a fee-for-service programme were twice as likely to perform a tonsillectomy than those who are not.
Tonsillectomy can be considered as an industry with a market. In the USA there are 530,000 childhood tonsillectomies annually. At an average of $3500 per operation this is an industry worth $1.855 billion yearly. The rise in adenotonsillectomies for sleep apnoea in the USA has been much greater than the decline in tonsillectomies for sore throat. This means that the tonsillectomy industry continues to grow, despite limited evidence that tonsillectomy confers significant benefits and increasing concerns in relation to long term safety. In 2009 US President Obama even remarked: "Right now, doctors, a lot of times, are forced to make decisions based on the fee payment schedule that's out there. So if they're looking and -- and you come in and you've got a bad sore throat, or your child has a bad sore throat, or has repeated sore throats, the doctor may look at the reimbursement system and say to himself, 'You know what? I make a lot more money if I take this kid's tonsils out.' Now, that may be the right thing to do. But I'd rather have that doctor making those decisions just based on whether you really need your kid's tonsils out or whether it might make more sense just to change -- maybe they have allergies. Maybe they have something else that would make a difference."
According to numerous studies and anecdotal evidence, parental pressure plays a significant role in the decisions of general practitioners and ENT specialists regarding (referral for) tonsillectomy.
For example, in 1957 an English general practitioner who was very sceptical towards tonsillectomy, reported that of the 40 children of his practice who had their tonsils removed, 6 (15%) had the procedure done because of "parental pressure that could not be resisted".
in 1961 English paediatrician Ronald Illingworth commented "The operation should never be performed because the parents want it, the doctor wants it, or a school nurse, aunt or grandmother wants it. The child alone is the one who matters." In the same year, an English ENT specialist remarked "It is difficult to persuade parents and practitioners that the tonsil has other functions than just to be taken out when large.".
In 1977, Canadian family physician Nancy Naylor remarked "Parents often ask: Doctor, his tonsils are so large! Don't you think he should have them out?".
In 1995 an Israeli ENT surgeon reported that of the 90 the children he examined, 17 times (19%) the mother was "enthusiastic for surgery".
In 2003, British otolaryngologist Martin Burton wrote in an article "Armed with an understanding of the natural history of recurrent tonsillitis, details of the management options available and information about the nature and risks of surgery, the appropriately counselled parents can make a decision with and on behalf of their own child. Many of them elect for surgery. But we should not delude ourselves that this decision is made on the basis of anything they have been told during the counselling process. I suspect that in many cases the decision has been made before the consultation with the specialist, perhaps even before the consultation with the general practitioner. In many quarters the “word on the street” is still this—“if you’re having trouble with your throat, you should have your tonsils out”. Fashions may change capriciously; tenets in popular culture are harder to dispel."
In 2012, a US paediatric intensive care physician wrote in his blog "I've met dozens of parents who say their child (or themselves as children) had constant strep infections until the tonsils came out. Often these same parents (and especially their grandparents) had had their tonsils out as children and more or less regarded tonsillectomy as something children need, like vaccinations.".
Mortality and serious complications following tonsillectomy
Given the evidence that many tonsillectomies may be unnecessary, the occurrence of complications and deaths following tonsillectomy are important considerations. Although tonsillectomy is a relatively safe surgery, serious complications (especially hemorrhage, dehydration and infection) and death do occur. Minor complications include voice change and taste disturbance. Because tonsillectomy takes place under general anaesthesia, there is a small risk of brain damage.
As tonsillectomy is most often performed on young children for whom the surgery and its aftermath may be a traumatic and very painful experience, there may be a depression and behavioural changes that last for several weeks.
Despite being a common childhood operation it is difficult to find accurate estimates of serious complications and deaths following tonsillectomy. The morbidity rate associated with tonsillectomy is 2% to 4% due to post-operative bleeding; in the US 3.6% of children are readmitted to hospital following tonsillectomy, mainly because of dehydration or bleeding. Haemorrhage after tonsillectomy affects about 4.2% of patients. This would be about 22,260 (4.2% of 530,000) children annually in the USA. Mortality has been reported as between 1 in 7,132 and 1 in 170,000 patients. A more recent estimate from Sweden suggests 1 in 40,000 patients die as a result of tonsillectomy. In the USA the mortality rate is 1 in 15,000, due to bleeding, airway obstruction, or anesthesia complications.
There are a great many more clinical trials comparing different ways of undertaking tonsillectomies and how to manage patients who undergo tonsillectomy than there are studies investigating whether they are effective in the first place. A single dose of the corticosteroid drug dexamethasone may be given during surgery to prevent post-operative vomiting. A systematic review found that a dose of dexamethasone during surgery can prevent vomiting in one out of every five children who receives the drug. The review also found that these children return to a normal diet more quickly and have less post-operative pain.
Long term safety of tonsillectomy
Although most adults who had their tonsils removed during childhood are in good health, research indicates that many diseases do occur substantially more frequently among adults without tonsils than among those who still have them.
For example, a study of 43,207 Danish children who underwent tonsillectomy found a significantly increased risk of respiratory, infectious, and allergic conditions later on in life; the increased risk of respiratory diseases was two to threefold, which means that for every five tonsillectomies, one extra case of respiratory disease will be caused. An Australian study observed a 50% increased mortality rate in young adults if surgery took place before the age of seven. And a study of 179,875 Swedish patients observed an increased risk of autoimmune conditions such as thyroid disease, rheumatic diseases, inflammatory bowel disease and type 1 diabetes.
Moreover, these and other studies found correlation between a previous history of tonsillectomy and the following diseases:
- Hodgkin's disease
- Non-hodgkin's lymphoma
- Laryngeal cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Thyroid cancer
- Breast cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Base of tongue cancer
- Hay fever
- Lung infection
- Kidney infection
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Crohn's disease
- Human papillomavirus infection
- Heart attack
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Deep neck infections / retropharyngeal and parapharyngeal abscesses
- Otitis media
- Multiple sclerosis
- Recurrent cellulitis
- Primary biliary cholangitis
- Lingual tonsillitis
Furthermore, research indicates that tonsillectomy may also lead to the following:
- a decrease in levels of serum immunoglobulin
- a permanent decrease in levels of secretory immunoglobulin A
- a permanent decrease in levels of immunoglobulin G3
- a ninefold increased risk of chronic disease
- an increase in overall cancer risk
In each of these studies it is not entirely clear if tonsillectomy caused the increased risk or whether it was merely an indicator of other factors which might be linked to poorer health such as poverty or exposure to smoking. Causation is difficult to prove anyway as correlation does not imply causation. However, many researchers argue that tonsillectomy is likely to be a causative factor because confounding variables are taken into account during research and because they claim that the tonsils act as the first line of defence in the immune system. Furthermore, research points out that the lower the age at which tonsillectomy is performed, the higher the probability of attracting certain diseases in adult life. This may be a strong indication that the tonsils play an important role in the development of the immune system.
For the past 50 years at least, tonsillectomy has been performed by dissecting the tonsil from its surrounding fascia, a so-called total, or extra-capsular tonsillectomy. Problems including pain and bleeding led to a recent resurgence in interest in sub-total tonsillectomy or tonsillotomy, which was popular 60–100 years ago, in an effort to reduce these complications. The generally accepted procedure for 'total' tonsillectomy uses a scalpel and blunt dissection or electrocautery, although harmonic scalpels or lasers have also been used. Bleeding is stopped with electrocautery, ligation by sutures, and the topical use of thrombin, a protein that induces blood clotting.
It is not known whether the benefits of subtotal tonsillectomy in obstructive sleep apnea are enduring. But this is also the case for tonsillectomy for sleep apnea. There have been no randomised controlled trials of long term effectiveness of tonsillectomy for sleep apnea.
Methods of tonsillectomy
- Dissection and snare method: Removal of the tonsils by use of a forceps and scissors with a wire loop called a snare was formerly the most common method practiced by otolaryngologists, but has been largely replaced in favor of other techniques. The procedure requires the patient to undergo general anesthesia; the tonsils are completely removed and the remaining tissue surface is cauterized. The patient will leave with minimal post-operative bleeding.
- Electrocautery: Electrocautery uses electrical energy to separate the tonsillar tissue and assists in reducing blood loss through cauterization. Research has shown that the heat of electrocautery (400 °C) may result in thermal injury to surrounding tissue. This may result in more discomfort during the postoperative period.
- Radiofrequency ablation: Monopolar radiofrequency thermal ablation transfers radiofrequency energy to the tonsil tissue through probes inserted in the tonsil. The procedure can be performed in an office (outpatient) setting under light sedation or local anesthesia. After the treatment is performed, scarring occurs within the tonsil causing it to decrease in size over a period of several weeks. The treatment can be performed several times. The advantages of this technique are minimal discomfort, ease of operations, and immediate return to work or school. Tonsillar tissue remains after the procedure but is less prominent. This procedure is recommended for treating enlarged tonsils and not chronic or recurrent tonsillitis.
- Coblation tonsillectomy: This surgical procedure is performed using plasma to remove the tonsils. Coblation technology combines radiofrequency energy and saline to create a plasma field. The plasma field is able to dissociate molecular bonds of target tissue while remaining relatively cool (40-70 °C), which results in minimal or no damage to surrounding healthy tissue. A Coblation tonsillectomy is carried out in an operating room setting, with the patient under general anesthesia. Tonsillectomies are generally performed for two main reasons: tonsillar hypertrophy (enlarged tonsils) and recurrent tonsillitis. It has been claimed that this technique results in less pain, faster healing, and less post operative care. However, review of 21 studies gives conflicting results about levels of pain, and its comparative safety has yet to be confirmed. This technique has been criticized for a higher than expected rate of bleeding presumably due to the low temperature which may be insufficient to seal the divided blood vessels but several papers offer conflicting (some positive, some negative) results. More recent studies of coblation tonsillectomy indicate reduced pain and ostalgia; less intraoperative or postoperative complications; lesser incidence of delayed hemorrhage, more significantly in pediatric populations, less postoperative pain and early return to daily activities, fewer secondary infections of the tonsil bed and significantly lower rates of secondary hemorrhage. Unlike the electrosurgery procedure, Coblation Tonsillectomy generates significantly lower temperatures on contacted tissue. Long term studies seem to show that surgeons experienced with the technique have very few complications.
- Harmonic scalpel: This medical device uses ultrasonic energy to vibrate its blade at 55kHz. Invisible to the naked eye, the vibration transfers energy to the tissue, providing simultaneous cutting and coagulation. The temperature of the surrounding tissue reaches 80 °C. Proponents of this procedure assert that the end result is precise cutting with minimal thermal damage.
- Thermal Welding: A new technology which uses pure thermal energy to seal and divide the tissue. The absence of thermal spread means that the temperature of surrounding tissue is only 2-3 °C higher than normal body temperature. Clinical papers show patients with minimal post-operative pain (no requirement for narcotic pain-killers), zero edema (swelling) plus almost no incidence of bleeding. Hospitals in the US are advertising this procedure as "Painless Tonsillectomy". Also known as Tissue Welding.
- Carbon dioxide laser: When a laser is used to perform tonsillectomy, it can be under local anaesthetic with anaesthetic spray only, called tonsillotomy (or tonsil resurfacing), or it can be performed under general anaesthetic when it is called intra-capsular tonsillectomy, using an operating microscope for magnification. The carbon dioxide laser in scanning mode is an excellent vapouriser of tissue, and in conjunction with a computerised pattern generator and operating microscope with micromanipulator, it can result in near total removal of tonsil tissue whilst preserving the capsule of the tonsil. This leads to a significantly reduced bleeding and pain rate. The local anaesthetic technique takes around 10 minutes, the general around 20 minutes depending on the size of the tonsils - the bigger they are, the longer it takes. The general anaesthetic operation has a revision rate of 1:50, the local anaesthetic tonsillotomy 1:4.5. This is different from procedures where a laser is used to reduce or resurface the tonsils (e.g. laser cryptolysis). Providing the absence of certain contra-indications such as sensitive gag reflex, LAST can be performed under local anesthetic as an outpatient procedure. A carbon dioxide laser is commonly used, and is swept over each tonsil 8–10 times. The smoke is aspirated out of the mouth to prevent smoke inhalation. Often, more than one procedure is required, each lasting about 20 minutes. Due to the frequent requirement for multiple sessions, this treatment may work out more expensive than a single session tonsillectomy. A degree of patient compliance is required, making it unsuitable for young children and anxious persons, who risk harm if they move during the procedure.
- Microdebrider: The microdebrider is a powered rotary shaving device with continuous suction often used during sinus surgery. It is made up of a cannula or tube, connected to a hand piece, which in turn is connected to a motor with foot control and a suction device. The endoscopic microdebrider is used in performing a partial tonsillectomy, by partially shaving the tonsils. This procedure entails eliminating the obstructive portion of the tonsil while preserving the tonsillar capsule. A natural biologic dressing is left in place over the pharyngeal muscles, preventing injury, inflammation, and infection. The procedure results in less post-operative pain, a more rapid recovery, and perhaps fewer delayed complications. However, the partial tonsillectomy is suggested for enlarged tonsils—not those that incur repeated infections.
A sore throat will persist approximately two weeks following surgery while pain following the procedure is significant and may necessitate a hospital stay. Recovery can take from 7 to 10 days and proper hydration is very important during this time, since dehydration can increase throat pain, leading to a vicious circle of poor fluid intake.
At some point, most commonly 7–11 days after the surgery (but occasionally as long as two weeks (14 days) after), bleeding can occur when scabs begin sloughing off from the surgical sites. The overall risk of bleeding is approximately 1–2%. It is higher in adults, especially males over age 70 and three quarters of bleeding incidents occur on the same day as the surgery. Approximately 3% of adult patients develop significant bleeding at this time which may sometimes require surgical intervention.
Post-operative pain relief is subject to change. Traditionally, pain relief has been provided by relatively mild narcotic analgesics such as Acetaminophen with codeine, for milder pain, and stronger narcotic analgesics for more severe pain. Recently (January 2011), the FDA reduced the recommended total 24-hour dose because of concern about liver toxicity from the Acetominophen component. An alternative is the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents, themselves giving rise to concerns that their effect on platelets might increase the risk of post-operative bleeding. In turn, this has renewed interest in techniques other than traditional 'extra-capsular excision' in the hope that post-operative pain might be reduced.
Tonsillectomy appears to be more painful in adults than children, although there will be individual variations in response.
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