In 2008, Rachael Hoffman-Dachelet’s eight-year-old son started having frequent sore throats. He’d run a fever, feel stiff and tired, and miss a few days of school. After six sore throats in a year, her pediatrician said This is crazy. I’m going to refer you to an ear nose and throat specialist. I think he’ll recommend a tonsillectomy (tonsil removal).
Rachael and her son saw the specialist, who did recommend a tonsillectomy. Tonsils are part of the lymphatic system, a network of tiny tubes and nodes all over the body. It is mostly a drainage system. Lymph drains into the tubes, which carry it to the heart, where it reenters the blood. En route to the heart, lymph passes through nodes. How can lymph move through the system if you remove part of it? Rachael asked the specialist. If there were any bad long-term consequences we’d know because so many tonsillectomies have been done, he said. The correct answer is that lymph does not pass through the tonsils. Rachael asked about the benefits of the surgery. Your son will miss a lot less school, he said.
Rachael teaches art at a Minnesota middle school. Her experience with doctors had made her skeptical of their predictions.
To decide for herself if a tonsillectomy was a good idea, she googled “pubmed tonsillectomy meta-analysis” and found a Cochrane Review about tonsillectomies and tonsillitis. There are thousands of Cochrane Reviews. Each tries to summarize the evidence about the effect of a treatment on a health problem (e.g., “Antibiotics for sore throats“). They are meant to be practical — to help everyone, including outsiders like Rachael, make treatment decisions (such as “should my son have a tonsillectomy?”). They are produced by the Cochrane Collaboration, a British non-profit, which says its reviews are “internationally recognised as the highest standard in evidence-based health care”.