Pain, numbness and stiffness
Below are some suggestions for managing pain and physical discomfort after treatment for head and neck cancer.
Learn more about managing:
Ongoing pain, numbness and restricted movement in the head and neck area may lead to distress, low mood, fatigue or reduced appetite. These can all affect your quality of life. Speak to your treatment team about ways to manage pain and regain movement, which may include medicines, positioning for comfort, exercises and other methods.
You may need a team of health professionals to help you manage ongoing pain or discomfort. Your treating specialist, cancer care coordinator or GP can put you in touch with the appropriate people, such as a physiotherapist, occupational therapist, speech pathologist, massage therapist, psychologist and pain specialist.
If you have lymph nodes removed from your neck, you may have some nerve damage that makes your neck feel tight and numb, and you may also have pain and stiffness in your shoulder. This may affect how much you can move your neck and make it hard to lift the arm. Nerve damage usually heals within 12 months, and feeling should return for many people. In some cases, these issues can be permanent.
It is common to develop some swelling, pain and stiffness in the head and neck area if you have radiation therapy as your main treatment or after surgery. This gradually improves with time. Sometimes swelling called lymphoedema can be longer lasting.
Not being able to fully open the mouth or jaw is known as trismus. It can happen after radiation therapy or surgery, and can affect eating, speech and oral hygiene. Trismus can be temporary or permanent. A speech pathologist or physiotherapist can help improve motion, and you can have medicines to reduce pain.
Pins and needles or numbness
Some chemotherapy drugs can cause nerve damage that leads to tingling, pain or numbness in the hands and feet. This is known as peripheral neuropathy, and it is often temporary but can be permanent. Let your treatment team know about any tingling, pain or numbness, as there are ways to manage these symptoms.
For more on this, see Peripheral neuropathy and cancer.
Podcast: Managing Cancer Pain
A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Dr Sophie Beaumont, Head of Dental Oncology, Dental Practitioner, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Bena Brown, Speech Pathologist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, and Senior Research Fellow, Menzies School of Health Research, QLD; Dr Teresa Brown, Assistant Director, Nutrition and Dietetics, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Lisa Castle-Burns, Head and Neck Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, The Canberra Hospital, ACT; A/Prof Ben Chua, Radiation Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, GenesisCare Rockhampton and Brisbane, QLD; Elaine Cook, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Dr Andrew Foreman, Specialist Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Tony Houey, Consumer; Dr Annette Lim, Medical Oncologist and Clinician Researcher – Head and Neck and Non-melanoma Skin Cancer, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and The University of Melbourne, VIC; Paula Macleod, Head, Neck and Thyroid Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Dr Aoife McGarvey, Physiotherapist and Accredited Lymphoedema Practitioner, Physio Living, Newcastle, NSW; Rick Pointon, Consumer; Teresa Simpson Senior Clinician, Psycho-Oncology Social Work Service, Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital, NSW.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.