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Tonsillectomy Technology

Getting one's tonsils removed used to be a common event before the 1970s, before doctors generally began to think that tonsillectomies only hurt patients and did nothing to improve health. Now, however, advances in tonsil removal may offer good reasons to remove the organ, which has been known to cause problems such as snoring, bad breath and recurring tonsil infection in some people.


Jonas Johnson, MD, of the University of Pittsburgh Medical School joined the CBS Early Show to discuss tonsillectomy technology.


Johnson says new tonsil removal procedures include laser, radio frequency and harmonic scalpel operations. In laser treatments, a beam removes the whole tonsil, enabling small blood vessels to clot so that the operation could result in less bleeding. Some patients have reported discomfort after the procedure. Doctors say a laser operation could cause a burn.


A radio frequency procedure relies on an electrosurgical instrument, also known as a wand, that produces pulses of heat. There are two kinds of radio frequency operations. One, called coblation, allows the surgeon to remove just the center of the tonsil to reduce collateral tissue damage. The second method, somnoplasty, uses a needle-shaped radio frequency instrument to shrink the tonsil by burning it. The tonsil is usually shrunk to about 70% its original size. Some doctors question whether reducing the tonsil's size actually eliminates the risk of tonsil infection.


The final type of surgery, the harmonic scalpel, cuts the tonsil with ultrasound vibrations. This method uses low temperatures and doesn't burn other tissues.


While tonsillectomy procedures may sound painful, some experts say tonsil removal may benefit children who tend to have six upper respiratory infections per year, and adults who have about two such infections per year.


Since tonsils are the body's first line of defense against disease, they could become easily infected and lead to strep throats, which could also lead to rheumatic fever.


Enlarged tonsils could also interfere with sleep, causing snoring. Some people, however, have deep pockets in their tonsils that could catch food particles, which could hurt or cause bad breath.

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