Tonsillectomies are commonly prescribed to help children who suffer from sleep apnea, but a recent study found that the treatment can make children gain weight, especially if they’re already overweight.
In the study, researchers analyzed 204 children between the ages of five and nine who were recommended to undergo tonsillectomy surgery and another 192 children who didn’t. The team followed the progress of the children over a span of seven months.
They found that children who had a tonsillectomy ended up gaining more weight on average than children who did not get the procedure. The overall weight gain difference was small and was not noticeable in children of normal weight. In overweight children, however, the extra pounds increased their risk of becoming obese.
The researchers reported that 52 percent of children who were overweight before the surgery had become obese seven months after the procedure. In the group of kids who waited, only 21 percent of the overweight kids became obese within the same time span.
The researchers stated that children with sleep apnea should ideally adopt a healthy lifestyle, which includes nutrition and exercise.
“You can’t just treat the sleep apnea. You have to have nutrition and lifestyle counseling, too,” said lead researcher Dr. Eliot Katz, a respiratory disease specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital. “After surgery, parents are often very satisfied. Their kids are sleeping better, and they may be better behaved and doing better in school. But there’s this insidious issue of weight gain.”
Obstructive sleep apnea arises when constriction in the airways causes repeated pauses in breathing during the night, according to WebMD. In children, the most common cause is swelling in the tonsils and adenoids, infection-fighting tissues in the back of the throat and the nasal cavity, respectively. And surgery to remove those tissues (known technically as adenotonsillectomy) is often recommended.
If children need the surgery, parents shouldn’t opt out due to worries about weight gain, according to Katz. He noted that if improved sleep apnea symptoms explain the post-surgery pounds, then other treatments — including medication or continuous positive airway pressure devices — could also spur excess weight gain.
“I think there are implications beyond surgical treatment,” Katz said.
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