Recovery after surgery

As you recover, you may be coping with some effects of surgery. You surgeon will explain how these can be managed. These effects may include pain, changes in sensation or numbness, and difficulty with speech, swallowing, and opening your mouth due to a stiff jaw (trismus). We also have information about possible changes to your appearance and preparing to go home after surgery.


You may have some pain or discomfort for a few days or weeks after your operation. Your doctor or nurse will explain how to manage the pain. It is important to let the staff caring for you know if you are still in pain. If the painkillers are not relieving your pain, they may be able to increase the dose or change the painkillers.

We have more information about managing pain.

Changes in sensation or numbness

Surgery may affect the sensation or feeling in your mouth, face, neck or shoulders. Some areas may feel numb. This can happen if nerves are bruised during the operation. It may take several months for the nerves to heal and for normal sensation to come back.

If you have a scar on the surface of your skin after the operation, it is common for the skin around the area to feel numb. It may take several months for normal sensation to come back.

Sometimes, if a cancer is growing very close to a nerve, the only way to remove all of the cancer is by cutting the nerve. If this happens, the changes in sensation can be permanent.

We have more information about numbness and changes in sensation.


Some operations to the mouth and throat can affect the way you speak. The throat, nose, mouth, tongue, teeth, lips and soft palate are all involved in producing speech. Any operation that changes one of these parts of the head and neck may affect your speech or voice, or both.

For some people, this is hardly noticeable. But for others, their speech or voice is temporarily or permanently changed. A speech and language therapist (SLT) can help you adapt to any changes, and help improve your communication.

We have more information about managing changes to speech and voice.

It was a case of learning to use the new tongue. The main thing was speech therapy. I still had feeling in the tip of my tongue and that made things a lot easier. It still took time though.



When you are ready to start taking fluids and food by mouth, you will see a speech and language therapist (SLT). If chewing or swallowing is difficult, they will give you advice on foods that are easy to swallow. You may cough when you eat and drink. This can sometimes be sign that food is going down the wrong way (into the airway). Your SLT can teach you exercises to help with swallowing and stop this from happening.

We have more information about help with swallowing.

Difficulty opening your mouth due to a stiff jaw (trismus)

Some operations to the back of the mouth and throat can lead to a stiff jaw. This can make it difficult to open your mouth (trismus). It is usually temporary. There are exercises you can do to help prevent this from becoming a permanent problem.

Changes to your appearance

Before your operation, your surgeons and specialist nurse can talk to you about the possible changes in your appearance. It is important to have a good idea of what to expect.

Operations that are done in the mouth or throat can often cause swelling, so your face and neck may look very swollen immediately after the operation. This slowly gets better over a few months.

Whenever possible, your surgeon plans the operation so that if you have scars, they are in less noticeable places. For example, they could be in skin creases on your face or a fold in your neck. Scars are usually red or dark to begin with, but slowly fade over time.

It can take some time to adjust to changes in how you look. It is important to know that support is available.

We have more information about coping with changes in your appearance.

I have an ear-to-ear neck dissection scar and even after almost eight years it can still feel tender and tight (more so in cold weather). The nerves in my face and neck can still ‘tingle’ too. My district nurse recommended using Bio-Oil on the scars and it does help.


Preparing to go home

Before you leave hospital, you will be given an appointment for a check-up or to plan further treatment, such as radiotherapy. You will also be given appointments if you need to see any other members of the team, such as your SLT, specialist nurse or dietitian.

If it is needed, the ward nurses can arrange for district nurses to visit you at home and look at any wounds and dressings.

Back to Surgery for head and neck cancer

Who might I meet?

A team of specialists will plan your surgery. This will include a surgeon who specialises in your type of cancer.