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Do You Really Need Your Tonsils?

Posted Aug 08 2011 4:49pm

I still have pretty much everything that I came into the world with. My hair – though not as much as before; my teeth – though not as many as before; as well as my appendix and my tonsils. I suspect that for someone of my generation that’s rather unusual. And certainly for someone growing up with English dentistry the fact that I have teeth may be considered something of a minor miracle.

When I was growing up it used to be fairly routine to remove kids tonsils. The first hint of infection and out they came. And it wasn’t an easy operation either – at least for the kid. It meant a lot of pain and days without being able to eat solid food.

Now you know what they look like

On the bright side it did mean kids got to get lots of ice cream as the cold, delicious treat was one of the few things they could eat.

More recently doctors have stopped removing the tonsils, except in special circumstances, so it was interesting to read an opinion piece on the BBC’s website from a surgeon arguing that we have swung too far in the opposite direction in the past few years. From doing too many tonsillectomies we are now doing too few.

You might argue that of course he would say that, the fewer tonsillectomies he does the less money he earns. But he’s part of the National Health Service in England (where the government picks up the bill – which may be one reason why there are fewer, the government doesn’t want to pay for them) so his income is determined by the number of surgeries he does.

Less is more

Rather this surgeon argues that the change in attitudes that has meant fewer tonsillectomies has meant that “we are seeing increasing rates of diseases and conditions that tonsillectomies can prevent or cure, like infections, and even cancer, of the tonsils.”

Is he being unnecessarily alarmist? After all there’s an old saying that if you are a hammer every problem looks like a nail – and if you are a surgeon every problem may seem as if it can be cured by removing it.

A hangover – and no, not that kind

Some people argue that we don’t really need our tonsils, that they are an evolutionary hangover, something we needed as we evolved to help protect us against infection and disease, but that today they are not essential.

Frankly, I’m never impressed by arguments that say various bits of us are no longer needed. I’m inclined to hang on to everything I have for as long as I have – provided it’s healthy of course.

To be honest, I’ve become rather attached to them.

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