Why Don’t Doctors Perform Tonsillectomies Like They Used To?

Tonsillectomies were a hallmark of the 1950s, alongside Hula Hoops, Howdy Doody, and bomb shelter drills. In 1959, the number of tonsillectomies performed in the United States reached a peak of 1.4 million. The vast majority were conducted on children. That number has decreased to about 500,000 annually in recent years. So, what happened to the tonsillectomy as a rite of passage? In the first half of the 20th century, infectious diseases were a burning source of anxiety and a paramount concern of the medical establishment, and the palatine tonsils — the lumps on the right and left sides of the back of the throat — were prone to the bacterial infection tonsillitis. Some physicians saw them as “portals of infection,” an input for bacteria that could cause recurring infections across the body. In the 1960s, Dr. Jack Wennberg, a researcher at Dartmouth College, came across two towns in Vermont with differing results. In one town, 60% of children had their tonsils removed, while only 20% of children in the second town underwent the surgery. There was no difference in childhood disease rates between them. In 1978, the NIH concluded that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show the benefits of preemptive tonsillectomies. Many other nations came to the same conclusion. Thanks to the rise of evidence-based medicine, most tonsillectomies have gone the way of Jello molds and coonskin caps.