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Life after surgery

Find out about recovery and what to expect after having surgery for thyroid cancer.

Recovering physically

After any operation you need time for your body to recover and your wound to heal. Thyroid surgery is quite a major operation. It will take some time to heal and adjust afterwards.

You may have some pain and stiffness around your neck. The nurses will give you medicines to help with the pain. To avoid any strain on your neck wound you shouldn't lift any heavy objects for about 2 weeks after thyroid surgery.

Taking time off work

If you are working, you will need to take 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 you have had lymph nodes removed from your neck you may need to take up to 8 weeks off.

Recovery time

Generally, if you have had surgery for thyroid cancer, you will be able to go back to most of the things you were doing before your operation. The recovery time varies and 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. 

If the muscles in your neck are sore and stiff, it will be difficult to look from side to side safely while you are driving. So you should not drive until you can turn your head easily without any soreness. This will be at least one week following surgery or longer.

Don't drive while taking any painkillers that may make you drowsy. The container for your medicines will have a label telling you whether they may affect your driving.

Some people are back playing sports within 2 weeks of their surgery. It is best to avoid contact sports such as rugby or football for a while. But non contact sports such as golf or tennis should be fine as soon as you feel well enough.

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.

Possible problems

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

You may have a hoarse voice after surgery if a nerve supplying your voice box is damaged during your operation. The thyroid gland lies close to your voice box (larynx). So the nerves that supply the voice box may be affected during surgery. After your surgery, you may find your:

  • voice sounds a bit different
  • voice may be hoarse and you may have difficulty making high pitched sounds
  • singing voice may also be different

Other people may not notice this as much as you do yourself.

Usually, the hoarse voice gets better within a few weeks and your singing voice will recover. But in about 1 out of every 100 people (1%) who have this operation, the voice changes may be permanent. It is very rare to develop more severe problems, such as permanent total loss of voice. 

Often the parathyroid glands can be affected by thyroid surgery. These are small delicate glands that are right next to the thyroid gland. They help to control the level of calcium in your blood.

If the parathyroid glands are not working properly, your blood calcium levels can fall below normal. If this happens you will need to take calcium tablets and possibly extra vitamin D. 

If you have a low calcium level in your blood, you may have twitching or jerking muscles (muscle spasms). Low calcium happens in between 1 and 3 out of 10 people who have a thyroidectomy. It is usually only temporary and the parathyroids normally start working again within 6 to 8 weeks of the operation. But low calcium levels can sometimes be permanent.

If you have had your whole thyroid removed, you have to take thyroxine tablets to replace the hormones that your thyroid gland would normally make. The thyroid hormones are necessary to keep your body processes going at the right rate. This is called your metabolism.

Without thyroid hormones, you feel extremely tired and lacking in energy. You will need to take these tablets every day for the rest of your life. 

The tablets are small and about the same size as an artificial sweetener. Your specialist or GP will keep a close eye on you and you need to have regular blood tests to keep a check on the hormone levels in your blood.

Your doctor may change the dose of your tablet if your hormone levels are too high or too low. Generally, this is not a problem and shouldn't stop you from doing all the daily activities that you were doing before your surgery. After thyroid cancer treatment, people often need to take a higher dose of thyroxine than people who take thyroxine because they have an underactive thyroid. 

You may need to take thyroxine tablets even if you only had part of your thyroid removed. If you have had follicular thyroid cancer or papillary thyroid cancer, the hormones may help to stop the cancer from coming back. They stop your body from producing another hormone called thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH can help these types of thyroid cancer cells to grow. 

Straight 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.

Your nurse may give you painkillers to take at home to help you swallow more comfortably. Make sure that you eat slowly and have plenty to drink during and after meals. 

Liquids can help to soften your food and prevent blockages. 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 may need to make a few changes here and there. 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.

With everyday difficulties such as dietary problems, it often helps to get advice from people who are in the same situation as you.

Wound infection is a possible complication after any surgery, but it is unusual after thyroid 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 pat your neck area dry with a clean towel for the first few weeks after surgery
  • avoid places where you might pick up infections such as colds
  • rub in a small amount of non scented moisturising cream (such as E45, Bio-oil, aloe vera or petroleum jelly) to your scar to help soften the skin around the wound and prevent dryness
If your neck starts to become red, swollen or more painful, or if you have a high temperature (fever), or oozing from the wound, tell your doctor straight away. You may have an infection and need a course of antibiotics to stop it getting worse.

Life after cancer

Last reviewed: 
02 Jul 2018
  • 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

  • Voice outcomes after thyroidectomy without superior and recurrent laryngeal nerve injury: VoiSS questionnaire and GRBAS tool assessment.

    M Tedla and others

    European Archives of oto-rhino-laryngology, 2016, Volume 273, Issue 12, pages 4543-4547