When certain conditions interfere with normal thyroid production, surgical removal of the thyroid gland is performed. This is usually done when thyroid cancer has been detected, an otherwise benign thyroid nodule grows so large it causes problems or hyperthyroidism (a disorder in which excess thyroid hormone is produced) does not respond to treatment with medications or radioactive iodine, though this is rare.
Thyroid surgery is known as a thyroidectomy. Two types of procedures are performed: a total thyroidectomy to remove the entire gland or a subtotal thyroidectomy, which removes part of the gland.
In a total thyroidectomy, the entire gland and surrounding lymph nodes are removed. The patient is given drugs to suppress thyroid hormone production, in addition to radioactive iodine. A subtotal thyroidectomy involves removal of one complete gland and part of the other, which is usually reserved for treating hyperthyroidism caused by Grave’s disease.
The effectiveness of any surgical thyroid procedure depends on the type of cancer present and how much it has spread. Overall, the surgery is considered safe, but may lead to complications that include injury to the vocal cords and larynx (which could cause hoarseness, changes in the voice and problems speaking or swallowing), injury to the parathyroid glands (which could cause hypoparathyroidism, a separate condition in which too little parathyroid hormone is produced), difficulty breathing and the usual risks associated with most surgical procedures (bleeding and infection).