What are possible complications from thyroid surgery?

In about 1 in 100 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 300 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. 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 to 6 hours after the operation for observation and in certain cases may observe you overnight in the hospital.

Surgery to remove the thyroid gland is well tolerated and has low complication rates when performed by an experienced thyroid surgeon. Complications unique to thyroid surgery include bleeding within the neck causing difficulty breathing, seroma (simple fluid) formation under the incision, and infection of the incision. Infrequent but serious complications associated with thyroid surgery also include temporary or permanent voice changes and temporary or permanent low blood calcium levels.

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The biggest concern with thyroid surgery is the risk of vital nerve damage that can cause lifelong disabilities to vocal chords.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.