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Goodbye Popsicles and pain killers: How painless tonsillectomies are changing CHOC patients’ recoveries

After hearing her mother’s stories of the aftermath of her teenage tonsillectomy, Jenna Opp was a little worried before undergoing the procedure herself.

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But thanks to a different technique offered by CHOC Children’s otolaryngologists, Jenna drank a smoothie right after the procedure, and by that night, she enjoyed eggs and French toast for dinner. Only two days later she was back in school and ready for a hamburger.

“I was expecting a lot more pain and not being able to talk and all those typical things,” the 18-year-old says. “But I was totally fine. I could eat and drink. I talked to my mom while I was still in the recovery room.”

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Jenna, before her painless tonsillectomy

Jenna underwent a procedure called an intracapsular tonsillectomy, wherein CHOC otolaryngologist Dr. Nguyen Pham deftly shaved away at her tonsil, leaving a small portion behind.

In contrast, a traditional total tonsillectomy removes the entire organ, increasing bleeding risk and exposing muscle behind the tonsil, which increases pain.

In addition to decreasing the risk of post-operative bleeds, which can be fatal, the intracapsular tonsillectomy technique has shown to dramatically lower hospital readmission rates due to pain and dehydration.

Further, patients like Jenna do not require opioid pain medication and are returning sooner to school and a regular diet, Dr. Pham says.

“They offered to do it the old way or the new way,” Jenna says. “They told me the new procedure is way less painful and only takes a couple days for recovery. I was like,  ‘I’m sold on that’ and it was awesome.”

Here are some frequently asked questions about intracapsular or painless tonsillectomies:

Q: Do the tonsils regrow?

A: The regrowth rate of intracapsular tonsillectomy at CHOC is 0.5 to 1%.

Q: Does an intracapsular tonsillectomy take longer than a traditional tonsillectomy?

A: No. The procedure takes the same amount of time – 30 to 45 minutes.

Q: Has this procedure been practiced in other places?

A: Intracapsular tonsillectomy is growing in popularity in the United States. Elsewhere in the world, such as in Sweden and France this procedure is already the preferred method of tonsil removal.

Q: Will a patient need pain medication after this procedure?

A: Usually children will require only over-the-counter pain medication for a few days after surgery. Some children do not require any pain medication.

Q: How old does a child have to be for intracapsular tonsillectomy?

A: There are no age restrictions for this procedure.

Learn more about tonsillectomies at CHOC.

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