Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a debilitating disorder of your central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) that is marked by degeneration of nerve tissue and demyelination of brain cells. (Nerve cells are sheathed in a defensive covering called myelin. When it is destroyed, it’s called demyelination.)
Recent research suggests a tonsillectomy might be one risk factor for MS. Understanding the risk factors for developing MS is critical — both for yourself and your loved ones who may have MS — in order to get the best health care.
Tonsils are the two oval-shaped pads of tissue at the back of your throat on either side. A tonsillectomy is the surgical removal of a person’s tonsils.
In the 20th century, tonsillectomies were a common procedure to help children experiencing inflammation of the throat and tonsils (called tonsillitis). In fact, most pediatric hospitalizations for several decades were for surgical tonsillectomies.
Even today, tonsillectomies are a common procedure. One study shows that between 2003 and 2012, a total of 3,936 tonsillectomies were performed at a single hospital in England. Of those, 38 percent (1,501 surgeries) were performed on adults and 62 percent (2,345 surgeries) were performed on children. Although researchers in the study concluded that tonsillectomies as a whole were on an overall downward trend, their work highlights how prevalent the operation was in past decades.
Additional work conducted in Scotland showed that between 2000 and 2018, the number of tonsillectomies in children actually slightly increased, despite an overall decrease in the country’s population.
In recent years, tonsillectomies have typically been done for sleep-disordered breathing in children, although it can still be a treatment when tonsillitis occurs frequently or doesn’t respond to other treatments. Tonsillectomies are also done for people who need help treating breathing problems related to enlarged tonsils, as well as to treat those with rare diseases of the tonsils.
There may be a link between receiving a tonsillectomy as a child and the development of MS later in life. New research has focused on this question and one study found that people with MS were more likely to have had a tonsillectomy than those in the study without MS. (It reported that 39.5 percent of people in the study with MS had had a tonsillectomy, while 31.7 percent of the study’s people without MS had had the surgery.) Based on this data, the researchers concluded that either early infection or use of antibiotics may interact with predispositions to MS in some way.
Other researchers have cast a broader net and looked for links between MS and appendectomies (removal of the appendix) and adenoidectomies (removal of the adenoid glands). One group of scientists found that there was a 30 percent increased risk for developing MS in those who had a tonsillectomy or appendectomy when they were younger than 20 years old.
However, these studies are not definitive. Other work actually contradicts this potential link and finds no evidence to suggest that tonsillectomy affects susceptibility to MS.
Based on current research, the question remains: Is tonsillectomy a risk factor for MS? Although science does support the idea that infections increase the risk of MS, even in children, more work is needed to understand exactly how infection increases this risk.
Other research has shown that contracting rubella, measles, and chicken pox in childhood increases a person’s risk of MS. Taking that into consideration, it is possible that infections may prime your immune system in a way that makes it — and you — more susceptible to subsequent autoimmune triggers, such as those that occur in tonsillitis and MS.
Some individuals on MyMSTeam report that they had a tonsillectomy as a child — although a potential link between their tonsillectomy and MS isn’t usually the topic of discussion. It remains possible that tonsillectomies are just so common that they happen to overlap with MS at times. Without a doubt, more research is needed.
On MyMSTeam, the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones, 179,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with multiple sclerosis.
Did you undergo tonsillectomy as a child? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.