We Are Having an Epidemic of Tonsillectomies


This is strange. Just the other day, for no apparent reason, it occurred to me that no one ever has their tonsils removed anymore. It seems like that used to be a pretty common procedure, and then it just fell off the map.

But I was thinking about adults, and that was a big mistake. Sarah Kliff reports today that I wasn’t just wrong about this, but wildly, totally, 180 degrees wrong:

It turns out we’re in the middle of an epidemic — a tonsillectomy epidemic, to be more specific. Tonsillectomies are the most common procedure, for children, requiring anesthesia. And we’re doing more of them: The number of tonsillectomies performed spiked by 74 percent between 1996 and 2006. In 2006 alone, more than a half-million children in the United States got their tonsils removed. The only problem is there’s no evidence they work for most children.

The procedure does show some benefits for those with really serious symptoms — very sore throats, fevers and other symptoms at least seven times in the past year — but no improvement for those whose indications are milder.

So why do we keep doing them? Tonsillectomies aren’t big moneymakers. Parents aren’t demanding them. There are no government guidelines that encourage them. Apparently it’s basically just inertia. Doctors have been doing tonsillectomies for a long time, so they just keep on doing them even though there’s little evidence that they work in most cases. It’s much like life itself.

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