Tonsillectomies were once very common. According to Medscape, 1.4 million tonsillectomies were performed in the United States in 1959. However, by 1987 — less than 30 years later — that number had dropped to 260,000, and it is even smaller today. Now, a new study revealed that doctors may still be performing too many tonsillectomies.
According to a study conducted by the University of Birmingham and published in the British Journal of General Practice, 7 out of 8 tonsillectomies are unnecessary.
Researchers analyzed the medical records of more than 1.6 million children from the United Kingdom. What they found was that of the 18,271 children who had their tonsils removed, only 2,144 (or 11.7 percent) actually needed the surgery.
What's more, they found many children who actually need tonsillectomies are not receiving them: 15,764 children had records showing sufficient sore throats to undergo surgery but only 2,144 (13.6 percent) actually received them.
Dr. Tom Marshall, professor of public health and primary care at the University of Birmingham, explained in a statement, "[R]esearch shows that children with frequent sore throats usually suffer fewer sore throats over the next year or two." For kids with enough documented sore throats, the improvement is slightly quicker after having a tonsillectomy, which means surgery makes sense in those situations, he added. But the research suggests children with fewer sore throats don't benefit from the procedure enough to justify surgery because those sore throats tend to go away anyway.
Of course, one may wonder what the harm is in performing an unnecessary operation, especially on a body part we can certainly live without. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, tonsillectomies come with numerous risks, including uncontrolled bleeding, reactions to anesthetics and/or infections. And Marshall agreed.
"Children may be more harmed than helped by a tonsillectomy," Marshall said in the statement.
As such, researchers are hoping doctors and parents weigh the pros and cons of the procedure more closely.