How painful will my tonsil removal be?
June 6, 2008 6:29 AM   Subscribe

I'm 34 and getting my tonsils out and my palette shaved.. I hear it's really painful. What should I expect?

The short summary says it all, but the long one is this: I have tonsiliths really bad. They get stuck in there so deep that Q-Tips, etc. don't get them out and I've torn up the back of my throat with fingers, picks, water, kleenex, etc. trying to get them out. I saw an ENT who also diagnosed me with sleep apnea and now I'm getting my tonsils removed and my palette shaved.

This is what I wanted. The doctor made me see him for a year griping about my tonsils before giving me the surgery, and he kept telling me how painful it would be. Then when the nurse called she said "This is our single most painful surgery" (Nice, eh?).

A friend of mine got this done and he said he was pretty fine, but as it healed he had to cough up bloody scabs, but he couldn't describe the pain.

To to describe me: I feel I have a high tolerance for pain. I had foot surgery a few years back. The surgery was on Thursday and I took one pain pill. Then I switched to Advil and on Friday I taught class for two hours (standing for the first hour of it). I then had a poker game at my house on Saturday, again only on Advil, with my foot elevated.

Yeah, it hurt but it wasn't "Oh my god I can't function in life, the pain please end the pain!" that what I'm in for when my tonsils come out? Can someone please help quantify how painful this will be, and what TYPE of pain it is? Throbbing? Sharp? Dull? Aching? Torturous?
posted by arniec to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
After 10 years of tonsil trouble, I had mine out at the age of 23. The surgery was combined with a Deviated Septum Correction, so there were additional recovery factors but this is what I can tell you:

I stayed overnight in the hospital and had IV pain killers for appx 36 hours. That was mildly uncomfortable. When I came home the pain was so intense that I did not follow the instructions on my prescribed pain meds and took them in 3 hour increments as needed. I was in pain pretty much constantly and drinking or swallowing was complete misery.

The pain was mostly throbbing/aching and even with the meds it never subsided completely. I slept as much as I could, usually meaning 20 hours/day for over a week. I didn't eat anything other than jello or popsicles for almost 2 weeks. (Strangely I lost practically no weight!)

Once I forced myself to eat things like mashed potatoes it took another 3-4 days to move onto semi-solid food. I've heard others say a better strategy it to force yourself to eat/move up to the next food stage as quickly as possible as it will speed up some of the recovery process.

I have a low tolerance for pain, but this was the absolute worst pain I have experienced in 32 years of life.

(ICK Factor 10) Also, be prepared for possible nastiness such as continued bleeding for up to 2 weeks after the surgery. I almost fainted the first time my mouth filled up with blood from a clot which loosened.
posted by prettymightyflighty at 6:52 AM on June 6, 2008

I had my tonsils out when I was 30. It was extremely painful.

I stayed on the couch for a week and a half, taking pain medication and slipping in and out of consciousness to watch the Food Network, longing for the day that I could once again swallow without excruciating pain shooting throughout my throat and ears. I lost 15lbs. in two weeks.

However, I would gladly do it over again if it meant avoiding the constant infected tonsils that laid me out for a week -- every few months -- with flu like symptoms for most of my adult life.
posted by studentbaker at 7:03 AM on June 6, 2008

I had a laryngeal polypectomy a few years back. Now, I know that thuis is not the same problem nor the same surgery, that's obvious, but as someone who suffered from chronic throat pain until the procedure I feel I can at least post a related answer. The pain of recovery for me paled in comparison to the pain of the disease. I've had surgery before on other body parts, but never have I woken up and had the drugs wear off thinking to myself, "wow, that's actually such a relief, I can't believe I went for so many years just living with my problem" except for that one. So, if your tonsils are that bad and the surgery that effective, I wouldn't worry about the temporary pain of recovery.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:10 AM on June 6, 2008

I think it varies for each person. Mine were not painful. I have had dozens of operations ranging from broken arms to skin grafting and tonsil removal was at the bottom of the list for pain. It felt like a sore throat for a couple days. My wife's was a bit worse. But nothing like people are describing above. I think it comes down to your pain threshold and your experiences with operations in the past.

I would not worry too much.
posted by birdlips at 7:23 AM on June 6, 2008

I had a uvulectomy and palatoplasty 2 years ago and the pain during recovery wasn't nearly as bad as I was warned it would be. I was given Tylenol 3 (with codeine) but never took any, just Aleve, and I was eating semi-solid food again in about 3 days.
posted by nicwolff at 7:28 AM on June 6, 2008

The pain wasn't that horrible for me (22 when I had them out). Even if it's bad, if you have apnea, the relief from apnea will be worth it in the long run, though. Good sleep rules.

The thing I did not anticipate, and which scared the crap out of me, was that I didn't know that there would be a lot of blood and scarring and God-knows-what in my digestive system after the procedure. So I woke up in recovery, felt awful, and then started vomiting black blood. That was no fun at all.

So: you may vomit black blood. If you do, it is (somewhat) normal and nothing to be unduly concerned about if it only happens once or twice.
posted by Shepherd at 8:02 AM on June 6, 2008

Response by poster: I'm loving the comments in their irony. "If you [vomit black blood] it is (somewhat) normal." LOL

Thank you all for the feedback. It's making me feel more convinced that I made the right decision as, two weeks out, I start to get very cold feet....
posted by arniec at 8:05 AM on June 6, 2008

I've had two kids, been stung by a stingray, and had my tonsils out as an adult (not all on the same day). I'd rank recovery from a tonsillectomy below childbirth, but just about equal with the stingray. I went through all of the first bottle of codeine syrup they gave me, and most of the second.

Since you asked: it was stabbing pain at first, then dull pain. It really, really sucked. I couldn't talk for a few days, and lived off Kozy Shack pudding for a week.

There's a good chance that your recovery won't be as bad as mine. My tonsils were "Huge! Huge!" as my doctor said in an shocked tone after the surgery. I know there was a lot of bleeding because of that, and I'm guessing I had a larger-than-normal area that had to heal.

If I were in the same situation again, I would have the tonsillectomy in a flash. It was completely worth it. In a not insignificant way, it changed my life. I'm much healthier now that I don't have the constant infections, and much more pleasant to be around without tonsiliths.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:10 AM on June 6, 2008

I had my tonsils out, deviated septum fixed, turbinates in my nose slurped, and a bit of cosmetic work to my nose.

No overnight. I went under the knife at 8 a.m., I stagged out the doors at noon. Painwise, I think it was a cakewalk. I was irregular with the painkillers in the beginning and stopped entirely after three days. I'd describe the pain as sharp and fleshy, like any wound, really.

What I believed was helpful was that I turned my bedroom into a sauna. If you read the experiences of people who have had tonsillectomies and other surgeries in airway areas where you have a lot of tender, moist tissue, they talk about dryness, cracking, and bleeding. Two humidifiers, gallon after gallon of distilled water, three fans constantly pushing the moisture around solved that issue. I subsisted on Powerade and water, but probably would have been a bit smarter to find something less acidic to drink than lemon-lime. Lay in some of those little espresso cans if you have a caffeine habit, like every other American - you do not want caffeine headache while you recover.

Get one of those funky pillow-chairs that will allow you to sleep upright, propped up - I had swelling issues making me choke when I laid down. Get several large beach towels. You will be drooling blood and mucus and who knows what into them for a while. Pitch them into the laundry quickly, for they will smell. Grab a small TV, DVD player, and a few seasons of TV shows; you will watch them without remembering them clearly. Get a few basins. You probably will not have to puke, but why not play it safe?

I didn't bleed at all after the first couple of days. Not a drop. Didn't so much as have the "cough up your scabs in a bloody spray two weeks later" incident everyone told me was coming. Mine apparently dissolved, probably due to the moisture. Started eating Jell-O the second day. Four days later I felt pretty good and was eating solid food again. Wouldn't kill you to have some fiber, as pain medications often constipate. Felt 100% after a week. Nose was a bit tender to the touch, be careful not to bop it on anything.

Shower every day, perhaps even twice. Just makes you feel better. Brush your teeth with that special "dry mouth" toothpaste, as it keeps your mouth wetter (sounds ridiculous, but what a difference) and doesn't contain powerful burning mint. Change your bedding frequently so that sick-smell doesn't overwhelm you (you know, that smell of sweat, old blood, and a hurt animal).

SURPRISE PAIN VECTOR: Your tongue. Your tongue will be swollen because they put a device called a "tongue blade" on you that pushes the annoying thing against the bottom of your jaw so it doesn't flop around during surgery. This made mine swell up and was probably the most painful part.

You will have a funny metallic taste in your mouth for the next two to five months. Lay in some gum, your breath will not be wonderful for a bit.

THINGS THAT TURNED OUT NOT TO BE USEFUL: I didn't do a damn bit of those sudoku or crossword books. Books were okay, I read Lonesome Dove right away.

Not a single tonsilith afterwards - no tonsils! Changed my singing voice a bit. You will have to relearn to swallow sometimes. Occasionally water goes in places you are not used to. When I cough now, I understand why people cover their mouths (aside from the disease factor) - occasionally spit comes out, when before it would just hit my tonsils and cling there. No more snoring, either.

I am male and older, but the caveat is that I heal very, very rapidly and have a tolerance to pain that is bordering on the excessive. I'd do it all over again. Completely worth it.
posted by adipocere at 8:10 AM on June 6, 2008 [6 favorites]

My ex had a uvulopalatoplasty and the like for sleep apnea. He was a remarkably noncompliant patient, without going into detail, and ended up requiring emergency rehydration and so on.

*Do what you're told.* Follow *all* the instructions. Make sure you're getting clear liquids in, even if it's just juice bars or ice chips. Do not be alarmed when you suddenly throw up a CSI-esque load of blood the first night (and have someone around to clean up after you)-- that's gonna happen. Don't push yourself too hard for a few days, you're going to feel pretty rough.

They'll give you liquid painkillers and antibiotics, but some people really do manage better taking pills than liquids-- if you have trouble with the liquid meds, call your surgeon's office and ask how you should proceed. You need to get those meds in there.

Oh, and do all your pre-op shopping before the appointed day, go home, and set up your bedroom for maximum comfort and accessibility. You'll appreciate it a lot more when you come home and your space is already ready to receive your zonked-out form.

Also? Don't Google the procedure. I had a retinal repair done some years back-- which was *amazingly* painful and nasty-- and I was warned not to Google it or I'd never show up to my surgery. I find this to be valuable advice when it comes to the really squicky ends of medical science. ;) Good luck! Feel better!
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 8:19 AM on June 6, 2008

Talk to your doctor about pain management and healing properly. If your doctor is not really thorough about it, talk to a nurse practitioner or other specialist in pain management. Not all surgeons deal well with post-surgery pain, adjustment and healing issues. Talk to your doctor and the hospital about their infection rate, because if it's that painful with healthy healing, infection would be big trouble. Line up plenty of post-surgery support, so that if you need a prescription filled, or a some gingerale, or whatever, it's just 1 phone call.
posted by theora55 at 8:33 AM on June 6, 2008

When I had my tonsils removed a few years ago the anesthesia took a while to wear off and I needed to be catheterized. This was much more painful than the tonsil recovery period. Nothing should go in that way.
posted by null terminated at 8:55 AM on June 6, 2008

I had my tonsils out a couple of years ago (early 30s) and wrote this:

10 Things I Learned About Having My Tonsils Removed

1. Like many people, I research things on the internet. I looked up adult tonsillectomies and found a lot of scary stories about the agonizing pain and unbearably long recovery time. This probably bothers doctors, because patients get their heads filled with half truths, hyperbole, and reports that only highlight the worst possible scenarios. I read a lot of those horror stories, and I am here to tell you that every single word of every single one of them is true.

2. The first written record of a tonsillectomy occurred in about 1 A.D, though some have reported a case as old as 1,000 B.C. in India. In any case, tonsillectomies have been around for a long time. In the olden days, surgeons used a sharp knife to cut out your tonsils and let you deal with the pain for a few weeks. Today, surgeons use a sharp knife to cut out your tonsils and let you deal with the pain for a few weeks. But now the knife has an electrified hot edge, so it actually burns and sears the raw, tender flesh as it cuts. Nice going, science.

3. Advances in healthcare technology have dramatically improved some surgical procedures. Nowadays if something is wrong with you, surgeons can use nanotechnology to inject a microscopic robot inside you (complete with a camera and miniature laser guns) to vaporize the bad stuff. Tonsillectomies are the opposite of advancement. When a surgeon performs a tonsillectomy on you, they are not getting “medieval” on your ass. Tonsillectomies aspire one day to be medieval. Tonsillectomies are more accurately classified as “barbaric”.

4. The surgeons performing tonsillectomies don’t even wear scrubs. They were black hoods and cowels.

5. Contrary to popular belief (perpetuated mostly by that episode of The Brady Bunch where Cindy got her tonsils out), you do not get to eat all the ice cream you want. This is a cruel fallacy. Ice cream is a dairy product, and it will stick to the back of your throat, causing you to have to continuously swallow. Did I mention it’s agonizing and almost impossible to swallow? Thanks for the false hope, Cindy.

6. Screw Atkins, South Beach Diet and Weight Watchers. You want to lose weight? Get your tonsils taken out and enjoy your new forced diet of Ice n’ Jello™. That’s it. For a week. And the first few days is just ice. You’ll have that bikini body just in time for Spring!

7. I do not want to hear from you if you had your tonsils out when you were a kid and don’t remember it being “that bad”. Once you’re past 25 or so, it’s a whole different ball game. If you have your tonsils removed when you’re 8 years old, it’s true, it’s not that bad—your body is still developing, the top of your skull is still hardening, your teeth are just coming in, your legs are still wobbly. But when you’re in your 30s, your body has grown accustomed to having an inside to its mouth, so removing it really puts the rest of your body in a foul mood as it tries to figure out what the hell just happened.

8. Since you can’t swallow, pain medication must be given in liquid form. Most hospitals will not supply take-home prescriptions for morphine drips or heroin (especially not my totally uncool hospital), so during recovery you get to bear witness to the awesome healing powers of liquid Tylenol with codeine, which is the same stuff they give infants when they’re too young for Flintstone vitamins.

9. To spare the future discomfort of your loved ones, if you have children under the age of 18, take their tonsils out right now. Do it when you get home from work tonight. If you are over 25 and still have your tonsils, for the love of God, I beseech you, KEEP THEM.

10. For those lucky souls who have not had their tonsils removed, please consult this convenient diagram so you can better gauge the relative discomfort of a tonsillectomy:

posted by wubbie at 9:50 AM on June 6, 2008 [20 favorites]

I guess inline images don't work, diagram here.
posted by wubbie at 9:51 AM on June 6, 2008 [4 favorites]

I was 6 or 7 when I got my tonsils out. I remember the pain being pretty bad, but then, I was 7. Swallowing really hurt for a while. The best part? YOU CAN ASK TO KEEP YOUR TONSILS! I had them for years in a hermetically-sealed jar. Fuzzy little floating marbles. Maybe more like moldy peas. Anyway, ask to keep your tonsils.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:40 AM on June 6, 2008

Do we have a "best of Metafilter" somewhere around here? Because wubbie's two posts belong on it.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:47 AM on June 6, 2008

Oh, yeah, and the thing they used to scoop out my ex's tonsils, adenoids, and part of his soft palate?

Totally looked like a melon baller. Wubbie's got the right of it.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 11:12 AM on June 6, 2008

i had my tonsils out a couple of years ago, along with having my uvula removed. it wasn't as bad as i'd feared. i spent a day eating ice chips and freezy-pops, then moved up to jello and sherbert and pudding and meal replacement drinks and broth/boullion and eventually to noodles after a few days.

i had it done as outpatient surgery, and set up the recliner in my living room with a whiteboard and whiteboard marker so i didn't have to try and express myself verbally and lived on the recliner for a few days.

the pain was pretty unpleasant for the first day, but i had liquid narcotics that kept me reasonably happy or at least unaware. after about 2 days i was still waking up in the middle of the night needing to redose on the painkillers.

i kept a sheet of paper tracking what time i'd taken my various drugs so i didn't have to actually remember and so i could worry less about over or under dosing myself.

after a few days, i was taking liquid tylenol because while i was still in pain, the pain was better than feeling opiate-stupid.

for staying hydrated, it's helpful to think in terms of lots of tiny sips rather than attempting to drink an entire glass of water at once. ice chips are good, too.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:15 AM on June 6, 2008

Ok, not to self pimp, BUT -- I have over a hundred and sixty stories about people who've gone through this on a post I made to my blog. Some of them are quite good to read through.
posted by SpecialK at 11:53 AM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

My one bit of advice - albeit this is based on a tonsillectomy I had in my late teens: don't go off the IV, or go home, until you can drink. If you do, there's a good chance you'll wind up having a panic attack in the ER.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 12:47 PM on June 6, 2008

I had my tonsils out when I was 20, I have had multiple other surgeries, and I would rather redo any of them other than the tonsils. It was painful, although I could breathe a lot better, as my tonsils were gigantic.

I bled for a week, couldn't eat for 2 weeks, and swallowing anything cold felt like swallowing razor blades coated in salt.

But, the couple weeks of post surgery pain was worth it, as I went from 10-12 cases of strep a year to none in the past 13 years.
posted by SuzySmith at 3:04 PM on June 6, 2008

I was 20 I think. I didn't have anything more than jello for three days. Then I was allergic to the pain meds they gave me and couldn't take them cuz they made me hurl. You don't open your mouth cuz your throat hurts so much so when you finally feel like talking your jaw objects vigorously. My jaw popped for an entire day. After a week I was able to eat a whole bowl of chicken noodle soup and it felt like the 8th wonder of the world.

It was worth it, really. But damn I wouldn't want to do it again.
posted by CwgrlUp at 3:48 PM on June 6, 2008

I had my tonsils and adenoids removed in my mid-twenties. My recovery was uneventful and tolerable, but (as others have said) more painful than other procedures I've had. It was oh-so-worth it, though.

The main reason I'm chiming in here is to forewarn you of the surprise you will feel when you vomit for the first time with your new throat and puke comes out of your nose, too.
posted by bonobo at 8:53 PM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

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