After surgery for a head and neck cancer, it is important to get to know how the skin on your neck feels now. This is so you can notice any changes in the area. If you feel anything new, you should contact your specialist nurse or consultant to discuss it further.
Surgery to remove lymph nodes in the neck (neck dissection) can cause changes in the neck and shoulder. After your operation, the skin in the area becomes tighter and thicker as the scar heals. Radiotherapy given after surgery can also cause tightness in the skin and tissue in the area that has been treated.
Your neck may feel stiff when you move your head. It may be numb in places, especially around the scar. This often improves over time but does not always go away completely. Some people have pain in their neck or ear. The pain may last a few seconds before going away. This is known as spasms.
As the scar heals, you may have a feeling of pins and needles as the nerves repair. Your neck may also be more sensitive to touch, heat or cold. Gentle massage with a non-perfumed cream or oil will keep the skin supple. This can also help make the scar line smoother.
Removing lymph nodes in the neck can sometimes cause a build-up of fluid in the tissues. This can lead to stiffness and swelling (lymphoedema).
During surgery to lymph nodes in the neck, the spinal accessory nerve is sometimes injured. This nerve usually sends messages to the shoulder muscle. If it is damaged, the shoulder may feel stiff. Some people find that the shoulder can be painful, more difficult to move or weaker than before. Others find that they cannot move their arm as much as before.
If the nerve was only bruised during surgery, it usually heals within a few months. But if the nerve was removed, the shoulder muscle gradually gets smaller and weaker. This can cause long-term changes in the shape and position of your shoulder blade. Surgeons will try to avoid damage to the nerve.
Changes in your neck and shoulders can take up to six months to develop. It is common for stiffness in the neck and shoulders to develop before you have any pain.
It is important to get any stiffness checked as early as possible. This will reduce the risk of developing a frozen shoulder. This is when the tissue around the shoulder becomes inflamed, very stiff and painful.