Life after thyroid cancer surgery

Thyroid surgery is a major operation. Most people recover in a few weeks, but the recovery time may take longer for some people. If you are worried about anything, let your doctor or nurse know. They will be happy to answer any questions. 

Your recovery

After any operation you need time for your body to recover and your wound to heal. You should be able to go back to all the things you were doing before your thyroid operation within a few weeks.

Pain and stiffness

Your neck may feel stiff and uncomfortable because of the wound and the scar. It may also feel numb. Tell the doctor or specialist nurse if you have any pain so that they can give you the right medicine to help you.

After a few weeks, any stiffness in your neck and shoulder should be much better. The hospital physiotherapist may give you advice on how to do some gentle neck and shoulder exercises following the operation.

The exercises are to help prevent any permanent stiffness. Be sure to do them every day or as often as you have been told by the physiotherapist. If you continue to have problems, then contact your doctor or specialist nurse.

Your wound

After the wound has healed, the scar may feel firm. It will soften and begin to fade within a few months. Look out for swelling and signs of infection, such as the wound oozing or feeling red and hot. Contact your doctor for advice if you become worried.

Wound infection is a possible complication after any surgery. To help prevent any infection once you are at home it is important to:

  • leave your dressings in place until you’re told to remove them
  • keep your neck wound clean and dry until it’s completely healed
  • expose your neck wound to the air when possible but avoid direct sunlight
  • not go swimming until your wound is completely healed
  • avoid knocking or putting pressure on your wound

Here are some tips for wound healing:

  • have a bath or shower but take care to avoid getting your wound wet. Make sure the neck area is dry by patting it with a clean towel afterwards for the first few weeks after surgery.
  • avoid places where you might pick up infections such as colds
  • eat a healthy, nutritious diet
  • get plenty of fresh air and exercise
Tell your doctor straight away if your neck starts to become red, swollen or more painful, or you have a high temperature (fever), or you have oozing from the wound. You may have an infection and need a course of antibiotics to stop it getting worse.

Eating and drinking

After your operation, your neck is likely to be swollen and may feel hard and numb. This is usual and will gradually get better as your wound heals. It may take a couple of weeks or more. While your neck is sore you may find that you need to eat foods that are soft and easy to swallow.

You may have painkillers to take at home to help you feel more comfortable when you swallow. Make sure that you eat slowly and have plenty to drink during and after meals.

Liquids can help to soften your food and make it easier to swallow. It may be helpful to use a blender to process solid foods. You will find that you can eat most of your favourite foods, but you may need to make a few changes. Here are some suggestions for a soft diet:

  • use more sauces and gravies – moist food is easier to swallow than dry
  • long, slow cooking softens meat and vegetables
  • finely chop meat and vegetables in a food processor before or after cooking
  • blend or process meat or vegetable casseroles or curries to make tasty soups

It is also important that you eat a nutritious diet to help with healing. If you are having trouble with eating, a dietician may help. You can ask your doctor for a referral to see the hospital dietician.

Taking thyroid hormone replacement

The surgeons might remove your whole thyroid gland. If they do, you need to take tablets to replace the hormones that your thyroid would normally make. This is called thyroid hormone replacement.

The thyroid hormones are thyroxine (T4) and liothyronine (T3). You need one of these hormones to keep your body metabolism working effectively. It is most common to take thyroxine. You will need to take them for the rest of your life.

Without the hormones, you would:

  • feel tired
  • gain weight
  • have dry skin and hair
  • feel physically and mentally lacking in energy

Your doctor or specialist nurse will talk to you about which hormones you need to take and the correct dose.

Heavy lifting

To avoid any strain on your neck wound you shouldn't lift any heavy objects for about 2 weeks after thyroid surgery.


If you are working, you will need to take some time off after your surgery. Most people are able to go back to work about 2 weeks after their operation. But this will depend on how strenuous your work is.


If your neck is sore and stiff, it will be difficult to turn your head from side to side safely while you are driving. It is best to avoid driving until you can turn your head without any discomfort. This may be a few weeks after your surgery.

Don't drive while taking any painkillers that may make you drowsy. The label on the medicine will tell you whether they may affect your driving.

Sport and exercise

Try to keep as active as you can. Aim for a little exercise every day, but rest if you feel tired. As soon as you feel well enough, non contact sports such as golf or tennis should be fine. It is best to avoid swimming until your wound has healed. Contact sports such as rugby or football can be strenuous and should be avoided for at least the first month.

Possible problems after thyroid surgery

There are a number of possible problems you might have after your operation. 

Life after thyroid cancer

This 2 minute video tells Amy's story of life after thyroid cancer.

  • Health-related quality-of-life assessment in surgical patients with papillary thyroid carcinoma A single-center analysis from Mainland China
    J Gou and others
    Medicine 2017. Volume 96, Issue 38, e8070

  • Assessment of voice outcomes following surgery for thyroid cancer
    K. Kovatch and others.
    JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery, 2019. Volume 145, Issue 9, Pages 823-829

Last reviewed: 
15 Sep 2023
Next review due: 
15 Sep 2026

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