Thyroid Surgery May Bring On Unexpected Neck Pain

Young woman massaging her neck at desk
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If you're planning thyroid surgery, you may experience neck pain and stiffness after the procedure.

I asked Dr. Eric Wisotzky, Associate Director of Cancer Rehabilitation at the National Rehabilitation Hospital what causes it and what you can do to alleviate it. Here's what he said:

Dr. Wisotzky says that several factors can cause neck pain and stiffness after thyroid surgery. The first, he says, is the position of your neck during the surgery.

"The neck is often fully extended during thyroid surgery." He informs me that the pain may be due to compression of a nerve in your head, called the greater occipital nerve.

The second factor is neck positioning after surgery, according to Wisotzky. "You may have a tendency to keep your neck in one position after surgery, which can make it feel stiff." Wisotzky suggests moving your neck and shoulders as soon as you're cleared by your surgeon to do so.

The surgical incision can cause the pain, too, Wisotzky says. He adds that "severe post-operative nausea and vomiting may also contribute."

How long does neck pain after thyroid surgery usually last? What can you expect as time goes on?

"Typically, neck pain after thyroid surgery only lasts a few days, but there are cases where it lasts for weeks, months, or even years," Wisotzky says.

And your diagnosis may have something to do with it. "Patients with thyroid cancer seem to have longer periods of post-operative pain than those with benign thyroid diseases."

Dr. Wisotzky suggests addressing the pain as soon as you can. "Early pain control after surgery is important because without it you may be increasing the risk of chronic pain." Dr. Wisotzky says going to a physical therapist to get a neck exercise program is a good idea, as is seeing a physiatrist.  And to move out of stiffness, he suggests 3 simple exercises to be done for 10 repititions, 3 times per day:

  1. Move the neck in the following planes of motion: look down, look to the left, look to the right, tilt the neck to the right, and tilt the neck to the left.
  2. Rotate both shoulders forward in a circular motion.
  3. Slowly raise the arms overhead and slowly lower them back down.


Wisotzky, E., MD.  Associate Director of Oncology Rehabilitation, National Rehabilitation Hospital. Email Interview.  Jan 2012.

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