A tonsillectomy is a procedure that results in the removal of two oval-shaped groups of tissue in the back of the throat called tonsils.
Tonsil removal was once primarily performed as a treatment for inflamed or infected tonsils. While the procedure is still recommended for recurring issues with tonsillitis, it’s more likely to be performed today for patients having breathing-related sleep problems or conditions, like sleep apnea. Most people recover from tonsil removal within a few weeks.
Why a Tonsillectomy Is Done
Recurring, chronic, or severe tonsillitis is still a leading reason why tonsils may need to be removed. While many people think of tonsil removal as something common among children, adults may also need to have tonsils taken out if they are causing problems later in life. Tonsil removal may also be necessary if tonsils are bleeding, chronically inflamed, or affected by disease. Enlarged tonsils sometimes need to be removed surgically as well, especially if they are contributing to breathing problems, recurring throat infections, sleep disruptions, frequent snoring, or difficulty swallowing.
Preparing for Tonsil Removal
Prior to surgery, patients are typically asked about medications being taken, any known reactions to anesthesia, and bleeding disorders they may have. Normally, patients are instructed not eat anything after midnight just before the surgery day. A tonsillectomy is usually an outpatient procedure, although an overnight stay may be necessary if complications develop.
How a Tonsillectomy Is Performed
A tonsillectomy is performed under general anesthesia. The tonsils are removed with a sharp surgical instrument called a scalpel (cold knife dissection). Bleeding is stopped with sutures, or with the application of extreme heat (electrocautery). Another option is to use radiofrequency ablation techniques to produce heat to destroy tonsil tissues and stop the bleeding.
With some procedures, a harmonic scalpel may be used. It uses ultrasonic vibrations to cut the tonsil tissue and stop bleeding at the same time. Some physicians prefer to use a carbon dioxide laser. It usually takes about 20-30 minutes to remove tonsils. In some cases, only a portion of tonsil tissue is removed. This is known as a partial tonsillectomy.
Recovering from Tonsil Removal
Following a tonsillectomy, it’s common to experience discomfort in the throat. Pain may extend to the jaw and around the ears. Post-procedure discomfort is usually managed with the short-term use of pain medication. Foods eaten after tonsil removal should be bland and not acidic or spicy.
Initially, patients are typically advised to opt for soft foods that are easy to swallow and chew, such as ice cream, pudding, or applesauce. While broth is acceptable immediately after surgery, excessively hot foods should be avoided until tissues heal. Rest is usually recommended for the first few days after surgery. Strenuous activities should also be avoided for a few weeks after tonsil removal.
Risks associated with a tonsillectomy are generally considered minimal. When children have the procedure, parents may be advised to look for signs of bleeding in the throat or fever. Snoring or noisy breathing may temporarily occur for a brief period after surgery, although such issues usually go away as throat tissues heal. Patients are also advised to consume plenty of fluids during recovery to prevent dehydration.