Having surgery to remove the tonsils and adenoids significantly reduces sleepiness and behavioral problems in kids who have sleep apnea, but it does not improve their performance on attention and memory tests. That’s the finding from a long-awaited clinical trial conducted by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital, and elsewhere.
Doctors perform nearly half a million of these surgeries every year in the United States on children under age 15, in the belief that the procedure will fix sleep apnea and all of the symptoms that go with it: sleepiness, irritability, and distracted or hyperactive behaviors.
The researchers recruited 464 children ages 5 to 9 with sleep apnea in Boston and other cities. They randomly assigned them to have either the surgery, called adenotonsillectomy, or check-ups with a sleep specialist. Seven months later, they found that those who had the surgery had much more of an improvement in their behavioral issues compared with those who didn’t have it.
On the other hand, the study, which was published online last Tuesday by the New England Journal of Medicine, didn’t find that surgery resulted in any significant improvement in how children performed on cognitive tests to assess how well they could focus, analyze and solve problems, and recall what they had just learned.