About Thyroid Surgery
- Here, you can find valuable information on what to expect and how to prepare for undergoing thyroid surgery, and what your recovery period will be like.
What is Thyroid Surgery?
- Thyroid surgery, known as thyroidectomy, is an operation in which part or all of the thyroid gland is surgically removed. Thyroidectomy is performed for various reasons, including enlargement of the thyroid gland (known as goiter), or for cancerous or potentially cancerous tumors of the thyroid gland.
Preparing for surgery
- Before thyroid surgery, you need to have an ultrasound of your thyroid gland as well as blood tests to check your thyroid hormone and your calcium and vitamin D level. These have almost always already been done prior to the decision to undergo surgery, but if they haven’t been completed yet, your BCENTS surgeon will order the necessary tests for you. Occasionally, your surgeon may also get a CT scan of your neck prior to surgery.
- There are no restrictions on the types of food you can eat before surgery.
- Your surgeon will go over more details of preoperative preparation at your preop appointment.
What is the surgery like?
- Thyroid surgery typically takes between 2 and 3 hours. It is done under general anesthesia, which means you will be completely asleep and will feel nothing during surgery. You will have a 4-6 centimeter (2-3 inch) incision at the lower part of the front of your neck. This incision is usually hidden inside a natural neck crease and is often barely visible once the incision has completely healed 3-6 months later.
- If you are only having half of the thyroid gland removed (hemithyroidectomy or thyroid lobectomy), you can often go home the same day! If you are having the entire thyroid gland removed (total thyroidectomy), you will need to stay overnight in the hospital, usually for just one night. During your overnight hospital stay, you will be monitored and have a few simple blood tests, and usually you can go home by noon the next day.
Recovery from surgery
- Pain is usually mild after thyroid surgery, and you will have a sore throat for a few days. Sometimes people prefer a liquid or puree diet for one or two days after surgery, but many times people can resume regular food right away. You will be prescribed a mild painkiller in case you need it, but not all patients end up needing it. You can also suck on throat lozenges to soothe your throat discomfort.
- If you had only half of your thyroid gland removed (hemithyroidectomy or thyroid lobectomy), you won’t need any other medications. If you are having a total thyroidectomy, you will need to take thyroid hormone medication and calcium supplements starting the day after surgery (see Calcium Supplementation after Thyroid Surgery. Your BCENTS surgeon will determine the dose of each depending on your body’s specific needs.
- If you are having thyroid surgery for thyroid cancer, you may need to go on a low iodine diet after thyroid surgery. This is usually determined by your endocrinologist, not your surgeon. Do NOT start a low iodine diet unless you are specifically instructed to do so by your endocrinologist.
- For more detailed information on do’s and don’ts after thyroid surgery, see our Face and neck surgery: What to do page.
Complications of thyroid surgery
- Although recovery from thyroid surgery is usually relatively easy, complications can occasionally occur. Here are some of the most frequently encountered and serious complications after thyroid surgery:
- Damage to the “voice box” nerve
- This is generally one of the more serious complications of thyroid surgery. The thyroid gland is located very close to two nerves on each side of the neck which control the muscles of your voice box. Damage to one or more of these nerves may cause your voice to become weak, breathy, or unstable. Although the risk of a permanent injury is thankfully low (around 1-2%), up to 5-10% of people undergoing thyroid surgery may notice a temporary change in their voice which eventually recovers. Learn more about this topic here (hyperlink to vocal cord paralysis page)
- Low calcium
- This is only a risk in cases when the entire thyroid gland is removed (known as total thyroidectomy), but not when only a portion of the gland is removed. If you undergo a total thyroidectomy, you will be kept in the hospital overnight and your calcium level will be monitored. In 5-10% of people undergoing total thyroidectomy, there is a temporary drop in the calcium level in the blood and you will need to take a high dose calcium supplement for a few weeks to make up for this. Luckily, permanently low calcium is a very rare complication (less than 1%). Learn more about this topic here (hyperlink to calcium supplementation after thyroid surgery page)
- Wound complications
- As with any operation involving an incision, bleeding from the surgery site can occur, or an infection of the surgical wound may develop. Both of these are rare after thyroid surgery (<5%).
- Damage to the “voice box” nerve
- Have you been told you have a thyroid nodule?
- Have you been told you need to have your thyroid gland removed?
- Have you been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, or told you may have thyroid cancer?
- Do you have an enlarged thyroid gland (goiter) that is starting to cause discomfort?