Neck dissection

A neck dissection is an operation to remove lymph nodes (lymph glands) from the neck either because it is known or suspected that cancer has passed into the lymph nodes, or because there is a known risk that it may do so.

There are several types of neck dissections. The type will depend on where the cancer is, whether it has spread to the lymph nodes, and whether it has spread to other structures in the neck.

A standard neck dissection where only the lymph nodes are removed is an operation that carries few adverse effects. Numbness in the neck skin usually recovers gradually over a few months although numbness in the ear lobule can be permanent.

In a small number of patients, in addition to the lymph nodes, other structures in the neck may need to be removed, including:

  • The muscle on the side of the neck that helps turn the head. When this muscle is removed, there will be a small indentation on that side of the neck. However the neck will still move without difficulty.
  • The nerve that allows the arm to be raised higher than the shoulder. If it must be removed, there will be trouble raising the arm above 90⁰ on the affected side.
  • A major vein that collects blood from the brain, face, and neck. Removing this vein on one side of the neck will not cause any problems. Other veins in the neck will collect and circulate the blood on that side of the neck and face.
  • A salivary gland in the upper part of the neck. Removing this gland will not cause any damage to salivary function.

The operation is carried out under general an aesthetic and can take two to three hours. After surgery, one or two small drainage tubes will collect any body fluid or blood from the wound site, and help reduce neck swelling and encourage wound healing. You will remain in hospital until one or both drains have been removed at usually day 3-5 after surgery.