Death or neurologic injury after tonsillectomy in children with a focus on obstructive sleep apnea: houston, we have a problem!

Anesth Analg. 2014 Jun;118(6):1276-83. doi: 10.1213/ANE.0b013e318294fc47.


Background: Obesity is epidemic in the United States and with it comes an increased incidence of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Evidence regarding opioid sensitivity as well as recent descriptions of deaths after tonsillectomy prompted a survey of all members of the Society for Pediatric Anesthesia regarding adverse events in children undergoing tonsillectomy.

Methods: An electronic survey was sent to 2377 members of the Society for Pediatric Anesthesia. Additionally, data from the American Society of Anesthesiologists Closed Claims Project were obtained. Adverse events during or after tonsillectomy with or without adenoidectomy in children were included. Children at risk for OSA were identified as either having a positive history for OSA or a post hoc application of the American Society of Anesthesiologists OSA practice guidelines. These children were compared with all other children by Fisher exact test for proportions and t test for continuous variables.

Results: A total of 129 cases were identified from the 731 replies to the survey, with 92 meeting inclusion criteria for having adequate data. Another 19 cases with adequate data were identified from the 45 from the American Society of Anesthesiologists Closed Claims Project. A total of 111 cases were included in the final analysis. Death and permanent neurologic injury occurred in 86 (77%) cases and were reported in the operating room, postanesthesia care unit, on the ward, and at home. Sixty-three (57%) children fulfilled American Society of Anesthesiologists criteria to be at risk for OSA. Children categorized as at risk for OSA were more likely than other children to be obese and to have comorbidities (P < 0.0001). A larger proportion of at risk children had the event attributed to apnea (P = 0.016), whereas all others had a larger proportion of events attributed to hemorrhage (P = 0.006).

Conclusions: Deaths or neurologic injury after tonsillectomy due to apparent apnea in children suggest that at least 16 children could have been rescued had respiratory monitoring been continued throughout first- and second-stage recovery, as well as on the ward during the first postoperative night. A validated pediatric-specific risk assessment scoring system is needed to assist with identifying children at risk for OSA who are not appropriate to be cared for on an outpatient basis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Analgesics, Opioid / adverse effects
  • Anesthesia Recovery Period
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Comorbidity
  • Databases, Factual
  • Drug Overdose
  • Equipment Failure
  • Female
  • Health Care Surveys
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Insurance Claim Review
  • Intraoperative Complications
  • Male
  • Monitoring, Physiologic
  • Postoperative Complications / epidemiology*
  • Postoperative Complications / mortality*
  • Postoperative Complications / pathology
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Factors
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / surgery*
  • Tonsillectomy / adverse effects*
  • Tonsillectomy / mortality*
  • Trauma, Nervous System / epidemiology*
  • Trauma, Nervous System / etiology*
  • Young Adult


  • Analgesics, Opioid