Why is thyroid surgery usually performed? 

Surgery is the recommended treatment for several disorders of the thyroid gland. These include:  

Types of operations 

Thyroid operations are usually straightforward when performed by an experienced surgeon. The most common types of thyroid surgery are: 

  • total thyroidectomy (removing all of the thyroid gland) 
  • lobectomy or hemithyroidectomy (removing half of the thyroid gland) 
  • near-total thyroidectomy (removing most of the thyroid gland but leaving a little tissue on one side) 

What questions do I need to ask? 

If you have been advised that surgery is an option to treat your thyroid disorder it is important that your doctor or surgeon explains the purpose of the operation andiscusses with you all of the risks involved, no matter how small.   

There are risks to all surgical procedures and you should not be shy in asking your surgeon what their personal complication rate is. All thyroid surgeons should be entering their data into the UK Register of Endocrine and Thyroid Surgery (UKRETS) database. This is recommended for all thyroid surgeons in England and mandatory for all members of the British Association of Endocrine and Thyroid Surgeons (BAETS)You can find out about surgeon specific outcomes on the BAETS website 

We have prepared a checklist of questions  which you may wish to ask. Once you feel you have all the information you need you will be able to give your consent to the operation   

Recovery 

A thyroidectomy should not be a particularly painful operation but it is normal to feel tired following surgery and it may take up to a month before you feel you have your energy levels back. The recovery process varies between individuals however. How you are affected will depend in part on the operation you have had.  

For more details about what to expect and some suggestions about what may help you, please see the following resources: 

What to expect when recovering from thyroid surgery 

Physiotherapy after thyroid surgery  

Potential complications 

It is important that you understand the potential risks of a thyroidectomy, how likely they are to happen, and in some cases, what steps you can take to avoid them.  The most common complications include the following: 

  • Voice changes caused by laryngeal nerve damage 
  • Low calcium levels caused by damage to parathyroid glands (hypoparathyroidism) It is caused when the parathyroid glands in your neck are inactive or produce too little parathyroid hormone (PTH) – which in turn leads to low blood calcium levels or hypocalcaemia. 
  • Post-operative bleeding 
  • Neck numbness 
  • Swallowing difficulties  
  • Scar 
  • Incomplete removal of tissue
  • Generally not feeling quite right 

For an explanation of the possible consequences of thyroid surgery please see BAETS leaflet 

For information and support about hypoparathyroidism, help is available from Parathyroid UK 

Alternatives to surgery 

In the UK there are currently few alternatives to the traditional surgical route available.  

  • Robotic assisted thyroid surgery is a technique that is offered by the team at Imperial College, London

  • In some parts of the world transoral surgery (where the surgeon accesses the thyroid gland through the patient’s mouth) is available but this option is not available in the UK. 
  • Purcutaneouradiofrequency ablation (RFA) therapy for nodules is a technique where radiofrequency energy (an electric current) is used to generate heat to destroy the thyroid nodule cells. RFA is considered in patients for whom high risk surgery is unsuitable or who wish to avoid having surgery for their benign thyroid nodule.  

Further resources

Watch the BTF thyroid surgery webinar

FAQs about thyroid surgery

Thyroid surgery checklist of questions

Further sources of support

BTF telephone support contacts 

BTF Hyperthyroidism Facebook Group 

BTF Thyroid Cancer Facebook Group 

BTF patient films

Patient stories 

We are always looking for more stories from people who have undergone thyroid surgery. If you would like to share your story to help others, please contact us [email protected] 

Further sources of information

BTF leaflets (also available in Polish, Arabic and Urdu) 

BTF thyroid surgery leaflet  

BTF thyroid nodules and swellings leaflet

BAETS leaflets 

Royal College of Surgeons 

In development 

NICE guideline to thyroid cancer (it is hoped this will be published in 2022-23)  

Partner organisations

BAETS (British Association of Endocrine and Thyroid Surgeons)

Parathyroid UK 

AMEND (Association for Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Disorders) 

Butterfly Thyroid Cancer Trust