The effectiveness of tonsillectomy or adenotonsillectomy (hereafter, “tonsillectomy”) for obstructive sleep-disordered breathing (OSDB) compared with watchful waiting with supportive care is poorly understood.


To compare sleep, cognitive or behavioral, and health outcomes of tonsillectomy versus watchful waiting with supportive care in children with OSDB.


Medline, Embase, and the Cochrane Library.


Two investigators independently screened studies against predetermined criteria.


Two investigators independently extracted key data. Investigators independently assessed study risk of bias and the strength of the evidence of the body of literature. Investigators synthesized data qualitatively and meta-analyzed apnea–hypopnea index (AHI) scores.


We included 11 studies. Relative to watchful waiting, most studies reported better sleep-related outcomes in children who had a tonsillectomy. In 5 studies including children with polysomnography-confirmed OSDB, AHI scores improved more in children receiving tonsillectomy versus surgery. A meta-analysis of 3 studies showed a 4.8-point improvement in the AHI in children who underwent tonsillectomy compared with no surgery. Sleep-related quality of life and negative behaviors (eg, anxiety and emotional lability) also improved more among children who had a tonsillectomy. Changes in executive function were not significantly different. The length of follow-up in studies was generally <12 months.


Few studies fully categorized populations in terms of severity of OSDB; outcome measures were heterogeneous; and the durability of outcomes beyond 12 months is not known.


Tonsillectomy can produce short-term improvement in sleep outcomes compared with no surgery in children with OSDB. Understanding of longer-term outcomes or effects in subpopulations is lacking.

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