What to expect after thyroid surgery
You will probably stay in hospital for 1–2 nights to recover from surgery. Sometimes you may need to stay a little longer. Your neck wound will be closed with stitches, adhesive strips or small clips.
Your nursing team will talk to you about how to care for your surgical wound site after you go home to prevent it becoming infected. The surgeon may arrange blood tests to check on your recovery. For more on this, see below, for more information about helping your recovery.
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What to expect after thyroid surgery
Most people who have thyroid surgery will feel better within 1-2 weeks, but recovery can take longer for some people.
Hoarse voiceSometimes thyroid surgery affects the nerves to the voice box, which can make your speaking or singing voice sound hoarse or weak. This is usually temporary and improves with time, but in a small number of cases can be permanent. Most people notice that their voice gets tired after thyroid surgery, but this is usually temporary.
Sore neckYou will probably feel some pain or discomfort where the cut was made. You will be given pain medicines to help with this. The position you are placed in for surgery can sometimes give you a stiff neck and back. This is temporary, and massage and physiotherapy may help loosen the muscles in your neck. You can also try using a triangle-shaped pillow to support your neck after surgery and/or ask for pain medicine.
Activity levelsMost people return to their usual activities within a week, but others may need more time to recover. You will need to avoid heavy lifting, intense exercise like running, and turning your head quickly, for a couple of weeks after surgery.
Mood changesChanges in hormone levels may affect your mood. If you feel anxious or have panic attacks, let your doctor or nurse know as they may recommend medicines to help. Some people find meditation or relaxation techniques helpful.
Eating and drinkingYou will find it painful to swallow for a few days. Try to eat soft foods that are easy to swallow. Swallowing can feel stiff for a few months, but usually improves gradually. Most people start eating and drinking a few hours after the operation. To help your body recover from surgery, you need to be well nourished. Try to eat small amounts of healthy, nutritious food. For more on this, see Nutrition for people living with cancer.
ScarringYou will have a horizontal scar on your neck above the collarbone. In most cases, the scar is about 5–7 cm long and is often in a natural skin crease. At first, this scar will look red, but it should fade and become less noticeable with time. Your doctor may recommend using special tape on the scar to help it heal. Keep the area moisturised to help the scar fade more quickly over time. Ask your pharmacist or doctor to recommend a suitable cream.
Low calcium levelsYou may have low blood calcium levels (hypocalcaemia) if surgery affects the parathyroid glands. This may cause headaches and tingling in your hands, feet and lips, as well as muscle cramps. Your doctor will do blood tests to check your calcium levels, and you may be prescribed vitamin D and/or calcium supplements until your parathyroid glands recover. If the parathyroid glands don’t recover, you will need to take vitamin D and/or calcium supplements permanently. Calcium supplements should be taken at least two hours after your thyroid hormone replacement tablets.
Further treatment after surgery
Tissue removed during surgery is checked for cancer by a pathologist. The results help confirm the type of cancer, if it has spread to nearby lymph nodes and if any more treatment is needed. In a small number of cases, more surgery is needed to remove any remaining thyroid tissue, the thymus gland or other tissue near the thyroid. If your whole thyroid is removed, you will need thyroid hormone replacement therapy, radioactive iodine treatment or targeted therapy.
Podcast: Coping with a Cancer Diagnosis
A/Prof Diana Learoyd, Endocrinologist, GenesisCare North Shore, Faculty of Medicine and Health, University of Sydney, NSW; Emeritus Professor Leigh Delbridge AM, The University of Sydney, Thyroid Surgeon, The Mater and North Shore Private Hospitals, NSW; Prof Ruta Gupta, Tissue Pathology and Diagnostic Oncology, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and The University of Sydney, NSW; Susan Leonard, Cancer Nurse Coordinator Thyroid and Brachytherapy, Cancer Care Services, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Dr Dean Lisewski, Endocrine and General Surgeon, Fiona Stanley Hospital and St John of God Hospital, Murdoch, WA; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Jonathan Park, Consumer; A/Prof David Pattison, Deputy Director and Senior Staff Specialist, Department of Nuclear Medicine and Specialised PET Services, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital and School of Medicine, University of Queensland, QLD; Prof Bruce Robinson, Endocrinologist, Co-Head, Cancer Genetics, Kolling Institute of Medical Research, The University of Sydney and Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Marissa Ryan, Team Leader (Cancer) Pharmacist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, Brisbane, QLD.
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