The numbers of WA babies having their tongues snipped because they are tongue-tied has exploded by more than 500 per cent in a decade.
The increased popularity of the surgical procedure is being linked to efforts to get more women to breastfeed and help babies who have problems feeding.
WA has had one of the biggest increases of any State in the use of frenotomy, where doctors lift the baby’s tongue and use scissors or a laser to clip the tissue that attaches the tongue to the floor of the mouth.
It is used in babies who have ankyloglossia, a congenital abnormality of the lingual frenulum that limits the tongue’s range of movement and can interfere with feeding and speech.
But the procedure is controversial because there is little reliable evidence it is effective.
A report in the Medical Journal of Australia shows that over the 10 years from 2006 to 2016, rates of Medicare-funded frenotomy increased nationally by 420 per cent.
But in WA there was a 530 per cent increase, with the number of cases increasing to 2274 in 2016 — to a rate of 13 cases per 1000 children aged under five years old.
Researchers from the University of WA were involved in the study. Writing in the MJA, they said there was little consensus among health professionals about how tongue-tie should be managed.
“Tongue-tie has received increased attention following the resurgent commitment of women to breastfeeding over the past decade and the growth in numbers of breastfeeding support professionals,” they said.
“Our results indicate that frenotomy rates in most of Australia have increased significantly over the past decade.”
They said the figures underestimated how often the procedure was carried out because they did not include those done in public hospitals where Medicare rebates did not normally apply. The data also did not include procedures performed by dentists, particularly laser frenotomy.
The researchers questioned whether the soaring increase in the surgery was supported by evidence.
In an accompanying editorial, doctors from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore said they remained uncertain about which newborns should undergo the procedure.
“We question whether some of our observed treatment success is just the result of natural history, and like our Australian colleagues we cautiously ride this wave of increasing diagnosis and treatment of ankyloglossia,” they wrote.
This article originally appeared on PerthNow.