Thyroid Surgery and Thyroidectomy

An In-Depth Look

Surgeons working in operating room
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Surgery on the thyroid gland is known as thyroidectomy. In this article, explore the reasons for thyroid surgery, types of thyroid surgery, and what to expect before and after surgery.

Reasons for Thyroid Surgery

Thyroid surgery is performed in a number of circumstances:

  • as a treatment for thyroid cancer
  • when an enlarged thyroid (goiter) or multiple nodules cause cosmetic, breathing or swallowing problems
  • in a pregnant woman, when her hyperthyroidism is not controllable by antithyroid drugs, and requires immediate treatment
  • when other forms of treatment for hyperthyroidism -- i.e,. antithyroid drugs or radioactive iodine have not been effective. (This is applicable in the U.S. Outside the U.S., surgery is sometimes performed as a hyperthyroidism treatment before or instead of radioactive iodine.)
  • in children, if the practitioner or parent wishes to avoid radioactive iodine
  • when the patient refuses antithyroid medications or radioactive iodine
  • when a patient wants to try to get pregnant quickly after treatment

Choosing a Surgeon

Complications are more likely with surgeons who have less experience performing thyroid surgery, so make sure that your surgeon has extensive experience in thyroid surgery. You can find out more in the article about Finding a Top Thyroid Surgeon.

Types of Thyroid Surgery

There are three main types of thyroid surgery:

  • Total Thyroidectomy -- Complete Removal of the Thyroid
    This is the most common type of thyroid surgery, and is often used for thyroid cancer, and in particular, aggressive cancers, such as medullary or anaplastic thyroid cancer. It is also used for goiter and Graves'/hyperthyroidism treatment.
  • Subtotal/Partial Thyroidectomy -- Removal of Half of the Thyroid Gland
    For this operation, cancer must be small and non-aggressive -- follicular or papillary -- and contained to one side of the gland. When a subtotal or partial thyroidectomy is performed, typically, surgeons perform a bilateral subtotal thyroidectomy which leaves from 1 to 5 grams on each side/lobe of the thyroid. A Harley Dunhill procedure is also popular, in which there's a total lobectomy on one side, and a subtotal on the other, leaving 4 to 5 grams of thyroid tissue remaining.
  • Thyroid Lobectomy -- Removal of Only About a Quarter of the Gland
    This is less commonly used for thyroid cancer, as the cancerous cells must be small and non-aggressive.

The issue of a subtotal/partial, vs. total thyroidectomy is controversial. Some practitioners prefer to perform a partial thyroidectomy whenever possible, believing that they will leave behind enough thyroid tissue to prevent hypothyroidism. (A total thyroidectomy has nearly a 100 percent chance of causing hypothyroidism). The risk of hypothyroidism with subtotal thyroidectomy is, however, quite high, and some experts say that more than 70 percent of patients receiving a subtotal thyroidectomy will become hypothyroid. Since one of the main reasons for subtotal thyroidectomy is to prevent hypothyroidism, and that goal is achieved in only a minority of cases, experts increasingly believe that there is no added benefit to subtotal thyroidectomy, and are more routinely recommending a total thyroidectomy.

What You Are Likely to Experience

In most cases, surgery of the thyroid is not especially complicated, and usually takes no more than two hours.

Removal of half of the thyroid takes 45 minutes to an hour, so if the entire gland is being removed, the surgery will last about an hour and a half.

Check with your surgeon about medications you are taking, and what you should/shouldn't take in the days prior to surgery.

You will most likely be asked to check into the hospital the morning of your surgery. Typically, your surgeon will ask that you refrain from eating or drinking after midnight the night before surgery.

Outpatient or Hospital Admission?

Depending on the condition of the patient, an overnight or two-night hospital stay may be planned. Outpatient thyroid surgery is becoming increasingly popular, however, and research shows that outpatient thyroid surgery is safe, effective -- and less expensive -- for most patients, and may be preferable to traditional inpatient hospital stays.

General or Local Anesthesia?

Thyroid surgery is more commonly performed with general anesthesia. Some surgeons are now using local anesthesia, plus a sedative, however, to perform thyroid surgery.

The benefits of local anesthesia are that it is associated with a shorter hospital stay, shorter actual surgery time, and less vomiting and nausea after surgery.

If you choose local anesthesia, your doctor will typically give you numbing medication for the thyroid area, plus a mild sedative to help you stay calm. You will, however, be awake during the surgery, and able to interact with your surgeon.

Not many surgeons are trained to do thyroid surgery under local anesthesia. So if you want to proceed with this option, be sure your surgeon has done a number of thyroid surgeries with local anesthesia. (Some experts suggest you look for a surgeon who has performed this procedure at least 50 times.)

The Surgical Procedure

In the surgery, the surgeon will cut a 3- to 5-inch incision across the base of your neck in front. The skin and muscle are pulled back to expose the thyroid gland. The incision is usually made so that it falls in the fold of the skin in your neck, making it less noticeable.

Blood supply to the gland is "tied off," and the parathyroid glands are identified (so that they can be protected). The surgeon then separates the trachea from the thyroid, and removes all or part of the gland.

Most surgeons use dissolvable stitches, but you may want to ask your surgeon ahead of time which kind he plans to use, because the non-absorbable stitches actually tend to cause less scarring. If you have any history of allergic skin reactions to past stitches, you may also want to ask your doctor about using hypoallergenic suture material.

Note: Most thyroid surgery is performed using traditional techniques. But some practitioners perform endoscopic thyroid surgery, which involves using a small magnifying camera inserted in the neck. Carbon dioxide gas is pumped into the neck area to help make it easier to see and work on the gland. A second small incision is made, and a thin tube with a scalpel-like edge is inserted through that incision. This tube is the surgical tool that is used to remove the thyroid. Endoscopic surgery, because it involves two small scars of less than one inch, usually leaves less visible scarring, and allows a quicker return to normal activity. Sometimes, the entry point is under the arm -- known as axillary surgery. Endoscopic surgery is not common, however, and you'll need to find a surgeon with experience doing these surgeries, and explore whether it is appropriate for your particular condition. 

After Your Surgery

After the surgery, you will usually remain under observation at the hospital for at least 6 hours. If you are having outpatient surgery, you may be discharged after that point.

Before you are discharged, your incision is usually covered with a clear protective waterproof glue called colloidium. (This allows you to bathe or shower after the surgery.)

Rarely, if there is concern about bleeding or if the thyroid is very large and the surgery has left a large open space, a drain will be left in your wound to prevent fluid from accumulating. You'll need to return to the surgeon a few days later to have the drain removed.

There are some common short-term side effects you may experience after thyroid surgery, including pain when swallowing, and neck stiffness. Most patients also become hypothyroid after surgery and require thyroid hormone replacement therapy. These issues are discussed in greater depth in the article on Recuperating After Thyroid Surgery .

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


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