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Early removal of adenoids and tonsils can help pediatric sleep apnea symptoms

Boston Adenotonsillectomy, or the removal of the adenoids and tonsils, is performed 500,000 times a year in the United States, often as a treatment for children with obstructive sleep apnea. However, the procedure's ability to improve a child's attention and executive functioning, behavior, sleep apnea symptoms, and quality of life has not been rigorously evaluated until now. A study led by Susan Redline, MD, MPH, director of the Program in Sleep and Cardiovascular Medicine and Associate Clinic Director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital finds that early adenotonsillectomy in children with mild to moderately severe sleep apnea does not improve attention and executive functioning when compared to watchful waiting with supportive care. However, the study also found that early adenotonsillectomy can be beneficial in improving behavior, sleep apnea symptoms and quality of life. The research will be presented at the American Thoracic Society's International Conference and published online in the New England Journal of Medicine on May 21.

"This new evidence should be carefully considered by physicians and parents who are deciding on the best approach for a child's sleep apnea problem," said Dr. Redline. "Our study provided evidence that surgical treatment can lead to early improvements in many health-related areas of importance to children and their families, including children's behavior. Beneficial effects of surgery were shown even among overweight children, in whom the effectiveness of surgery has been questioned. However, the study also showed that many times sleep apnea resolved without surgery and that cognitive functioning did not improve more with surgery than with medical management. Thus, watchful waiting is also a reasonable option for some children with sleep apnea without many symptoms."

The study, which was conducted in partnership with eight other institutions, examined 397 children between the ages of five and nine who had obstructive sleep apnea syndrome without prolonged levels of low oxygen. The children were randomly placed in two groups. One hundred and ninety-four children had their adenoids and tonsils removed within four weeks of being randomized to the study. The remaining 203 children underwent watchful waiting with supportive care to see if their sleep apnea symptoms resolved without surgery.

Seven months later, both groups of children underwent the Developmental NEuroPSYchological Assessment, which showed no significant difference between the groups in the improvement of attention and executive functioning. However, other tests, including assessments by parents and teachers, showed significant improvements in the quality of life, sleep apnea symptoms and behavior in the children who had the early adenotonsillectomy.


Contact: Tom Langford
Brigham and Women's Hospital

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