Sleep apnea occurs when an individual stops breathing multiple times during sleep. The causes vary from obesity, lifestyle choices, narrowed airways, to genetics. Assisted breathing machines such as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices can help improve sleep quantity and quality. Of the 3 types of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common. Enlarged tonsils are a common cause of airway blockage. A tonsillectomy can clear the airway and improve overall sleep.
What are tonsils?
Tonsils are small glands located in the back of the throat. There are 3 sets of tonsils: the adenoids, palatine, and the lingual. Tonsils work to fight infection and prevent objects from slipping into the lungs. Tonsils are the first line of defense for the immune system. Inflamed or infected tonsils can block the airway and making breathing more difficult. Treatment includes antibiotics and sometimes surgery.
The surgery associated with an ice cream treat
A tonsillectomy is a medical procedure to remove the tonsils. Many children get ice cream after this procedure because the cold treat eases some pain. Tonsillectomies are used to treat repeat cases of tonsillitis or strep throat, breathing trouble, loud snoring, and sleep apnea. The surgery is an outpatient procedure performed under general anesthesia. Full recovery takes about 2 weeks.
Pediatric vs adult tonsillectomies
Tonsillectomies are more common in children than in adults. Children usually receive the surgery as a treatment for infected tonsils. Adults typically undergo tonsillectomies as a treatment for sleep apnea. Removal of the tonsils increases space in the airway, thereby improving overall breathing and sleep. Adenoids and palatine tonsils are generally removed at the same time.
Will a tonsillectomy work?
If the cause of the sleep apnea is an obstructed airway, a tonsillectomy should clear up the apnea. If the sleep apnea continues post-surgery, further testing may be needed. The cause could be a result of a deviated septum, narrowed airway, age, weight, neurological status, or genetics. Lifestyle changes and sleeping with the head elevated on a pillow can improve symptoms.
Is surgery the right way to go?
Many cases of OSA are cured or mitigated with the removal of the tonsils. In this condition, the muscles in the back of the throat relax, causing the airway to constrict. Swollen tonsils can also be a cause of obstructed airways. The brain sends signals to wake the individual momentarily so that normal breathing can resume. If the removal of the tonsils does not clear the sleep apnea, there are likely other health-related causes. Speak with a healthcare provider to find out if a tonsillectomy is the right treatment option for sleep apnea.