Help or Harm? Rethinking Common Surgeries

What if a straightforward medical procedure you had as a child could drastically increase your risk of health complications far into the future? Tonsillectomies, adenoidectomies, and adenotonsillectomies, which are surgeries commonly performed on young patients, are often meant to treat or eliminate breathing problems or middle-ear infections. However, they may ultimately do more harm than good.


Stephen Stearns, a professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University, along with colleagues Sean Byars from the University of Melbourne and Jacobus Boomsma from the University of Copenhagen, evaluated the long-term health risks of such surgeries for children nine years old or younger. Using information from the Danish Health Registry, the researchers found that young children who have these surgeries are more likely to suffer from upper respiratory diseases, infectious diseases, and allergy-related diseases later in life.


The most significant increase in risk is seen in that of upper respiratory diseases; those who received a surgery of interest in the first nine years of their life are about two to three times more likely to contract an upper respiratory disease than their peers.


Although this is a shocking number, it may not be a call to ban these surgeries. “I think what this paper really does is reinforce something that otolaryngologists had already been doing to a certain extent, and that is watchful waiting,” said Stearns. The scientists who conducted this research hope that increasing awareness of the hidden risks associated with these surgeries will encourage physicians to more carefully consider the removal of these valuable organs.