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Recuperating After Thyroid Surgery

What to Expect

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Updated April 03, 2014

After thyroid surgery, most doctors will recommend you stay in bed the first day. Your doctor will, however, probably suggest that you begin moving about as soon as possible thereafter.

If you are hospitalized, you may remain on an intravenous drip for nutrition, as swallowing and eating can be difficult in the first day. If you are home, you may wish to try liquids or very soft foods until swallowing and chewing other foods is more comfortable.

While complications are not common after thyroid surgery, there are several that can occur. These include hypoparathyroidism, hypocalcemia, and laryngeal nerve damage. Signs can include numbness and tingling around your lips, hands, and the bottoms of your feet, muscle cramps and spasms, bad headaches, anxiety, depression, hoarseness, and difficulty speaking loudly. You can read more about it in the article, Complications after Thyroid Surgery.

You may experience some short-term, less serious side effects after surgery. These can include:

  • Pain when swallowing, or in the neck area -- Pain can come from the breathing tube after surgery or from the surgery itself. This should subside within a few days; an over-the-counter non-steroidal pain reliever, like ibuprofen, can relieve discomfort.
  • Neck tension and tenderness -- Your tendency may be to hold your head stiffly in one position after surgery, and this can cause neck and muscle tension. It's good to do gentle stretching and range of motion exercises to prevent muscle stiffness in the neck area. Simply turning your head to the right, then rolling your chin across the chest until your head is facing left can help loosen tight muscles.
  • Voice problems -- Your voice may be hoarse, whispery, or tired. Some people find that periods of hoarseness can last as long as two to three months.
  • Irritated windpipe-- If you had a breathing tube during general anesthesia, it can irritate your windpipe and may make you feel as if you have something stuck in your throat. This feeling usually goes away within five days.
Your doctor will likely recommend that you take one to two weeks to recuperate before you return to work and other normal activities. You should be able to return to driving and participating in other activities, as well as non-contact sports, as soon as you can turn your head normally and without pain or difficulty. Be sure that you clear this with your surgeon first, however.

You will usually have to return to the surgeon for a follow-up visit around three weeks after surgery.

Caring for Your Incision

While the coating applied over your incision will make it possible for you to bathe or shower after the surgery, you should not submerge, soak, or scrub your incision. After showering, you may want to use a hair dryer set to cool to dry the incision.

The coating over your incision will usually turn white and peel off within a week. Once the coating falls off, you can start using a scar gel, aloe, vitamin E, or cocoa butter to help with healing and minimize itching.

You might notice bruising or slight swelling around the scar. If you notice any significant swelling, you should contact your surgeon right away, as that could be a sign of infection.

Over time, the scar may take on a pink color and feel hard. The hardening typically peaks about three weeks after surgery and then subsides over the next two to three months.

What will your scar look like? Thyroidcancer.com has photos of thyroid surgery scars at different points after surgery.

Post-Surgery Thyroid Hormone Replacement

Most patients receiving a total thyroidectomy -- and the majority of patients receiving a subtotal thyroidectomy (partial removal of the gland) -- find that their thyroid becomes unable to produce enough thyroid hormone -- making them hypothyroid. When you are hypothyroid, you may need prescription thyroid replacement drugs. Your doctor may not discuss this with you, so be sure to have a conversation with him or her before you are discharged.

Symptoms of hypothyroidism include fatigue, sluggishness, depression, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, unexplained or excessive weight gain, dry skin, coarse and/or itchy skin, dry hair, hair loss, feeling cold (especially in the extremities), constipation, muscle cramps, joint pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, increased menstrual flow, low sex drive, and more frequent periods, among others. You'll find a detailed hypothyroidism symptoms checklist online.

Watch carefully for any of these signs of hypothyroidism, and insist on full testing as soon as any symptoms appear.

Mary Shomon, About.com's Thyroid Guide since 1997, is a nationally-known patient advocate and best-selling author of 10 books on health, including "The Thyroid Hormone Breakthrough: Overcoming Sexual and Hormonal Problems at Every Age," "The Thyroid Diet: Manage Your Metabolism for Lasting Weight Loss," "Living Well With Hypothyroidism: What Your Doctor Doesn't Tell You...That You Need to Know," "Living Well With Graves' Disease and Hyperthyroidism," "Living Well With Autoimmune Disease," and "Living Well With Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia." Click here for more information on Mary Shomon.

References:

Braverman, MD, Lewis E., and Robert D. Utiger, MD. Werner and Ingbar's The Thyroid: A Fundamental and Clinical Text. 9th ed., Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins (LWW), 2005.

American Thyroid Association brochure on Thyroid Surgery, Online (PDF)

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