Thyroid Surgery Frequently Asked Questions

If you need thyroid surgery, it is important to know what to expect. The following are some of the most frequently asked questions:

How long will I be hospitalized?

Most patients come to the hospital on the morning of their surgery and the majority of patients go home the same day after a 4 hour observation period in the recovery room.

What type of anesthesia will I have?

Patients will receive general anesthesia. With this type of anesthesia, you are completely asleep during the operation, and you will have a breathing tube placed temporarily to protect your airway and lungs.

Will I have a scar?

Yes. All surgery causes scarring, and how the patient heals the scar is very much dependent on the individual. However, there are some techniques that surgeons use to minimize scarring. These techniques include: a smaller incision size, careful incision placement, and using hypoallergenic suture material to avoid inflammation. Columbia Thyroid Center surgeons make every effort to place the incision in a natural skin line which acts like camouflage. The incision will blend into the skin line and once the redness fades away it is essentially invisible. As a general rule, you should not have a noticeable scar after six months. See Scar Gallery ».

Will I have pain after the operation?

All operations involve some pain and discomfort. Our goal is to minimize this discomfort. At the time of operation, your surgeon will give you some numbing medication, which will usually last four to six hours after surgery. Although you should be able to eat and drink normally, the main complaint is pain with swallowing. Most patients prefer softer foods initially. Taking Tylenol® and/or Motrin® for the first few days should control any discomfort. The vast majority of patients do not require narcotic pain medications.

When will I know the findings from the surgery?

During the operation, your surgeon may consult with the pathologist who will provide a preliminary diagnosis. However, the final pathology report requires careful study of your tissue specimen. Therefore, the final report is usually not available until about 1 week after the operation.

Will I have stitches?

Before you are discharged from the hospital, a single suture at the incision will be removed. The incision is covered with a plastic coating that is water-resistant, so that you can shower as usual. However, do not submerge the incision for five days. The coating will peel off on its own within five to seven days. After your postoperative appointment, a moisturizer can be applied to the wound to improve healing.

Will I have any physical restrictions after my surgery?

In general, your activity level depends on how much discomfort you experience. Many patients may resume regular activities within a few days after the operation. Most patients are able to return to work within the first week. You will be able to drive as soon as you can turn your head comfortably, for your own safety while driving. Your surgeon will ask you not to soak in a hot bathtub or go swimming for 1 week after the surgery. You must see the surgeon for a follow-up visit 3 weeks after surgery.

What are the potential complications unique to thyroid surgery?

In about 1 in 150 thyroid operations, the nerves that control the voice are affected by the surgical removal of the thyroid. When this occurs, the main difficulties are projection of the voice and production of high pitched sounds. It is usually described as hoarseness, but will not necessarily be considered abnormal by strangers. Usually, voice changes are temporary, so the voice will return to normal within a few weeks; permanent change is rare.

In about 1 in 200 thyroid operations, the parathyroid glands will not function as a result of surgery. These are four delicate glands that are located near the thyroid. Since the parathyroid glands control calcium levels, their dysfunction usually results in a lowered calcium level. Therefore, some patients require calcium supplements on a temporary basis. If the parathyroids do not function properly, calcium or vitamin D may be needed on a permanent basis.

Both of these possible complications are directly related to the operative experience of the surgeon, and these statistics are based on our own results. Although the risk of these complications cannot be eliminated entirely, they can certainly be minimized in the hands of an experienced thyroid surgeon.

As with any operation, there is a risk of bleeding. In the case of thyroid and parathyroid surgery, the risk is 1 in 300 patients (much less than 1%). Because of this rare chance of bleeding, we keep you in the hospital for 4 hours after the operation for observation and in certain cases may observe you overnight in the hospital.

Click here to learn about the risks of thyroid surgery.

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