What Is Neck Dissection?

Neck dissection - copyright ADAM (320x240)
Lymph nodes of the head and neck

Neck dissection is surgery to remove the lymph nodes in the neck.

Neck dissection is a major surgery done to remove lymph nodes that have cancer. It is done in the hospital. Before surgery, you will receive general anesthesia. This will make you sleep and unable to feel pain.

The amount of tissue and the number of lymph nodes that are removed depend on how far the cancer has spread. There are three main types of neck dissection surgery.

Modified radical neck dissection: This is the most common type of neck dissection. All lymph nodes are removed. Less neck tissue is taken out than radical dissection. This surgery may also spare the nerves in the neck and, sometimes, the blood vessels or muscle.

Central neck dissection: If cancer has not spread far, fewer lymph nodes have to be removed. The muscle, nerve and blood vessel in the neck may also be saved.

Why the Procedure Is Performed

The lymph system carries white blood cells around the body to fight infection. Cancer cells in the mouth or throat can travel in the lymph fluid and get trapped in the lymph nodes. The lymph nodes are removed to prevent cancer from spreading to other parts of the body and to decide if any more treatment is needed. 

Your doctor may recommend this procedure if:

  • You have cancer of the mouth, tongue, thyroid gland, or other areas of the throat or neck
  • Cancer has spread to the lymph nodes
  • The cancer may spread to other parts of the body

After Surgery

You will be taken to the recovery room to wake up after surgery.

The head of your bed will be raised at a slight angle.

You will have a tube in a vein (IV) for fluids and nutrition. You may not be able to eat or drink for the first 24 hours.

You will get pain medicine and antibiotics.                              

You will have drains in your neck.

The nurses will help you get out of bed and move around a little on the day of the surgery. You may start physical therapy while you are in the hospital and after you go home.


Most people go home from the hospital in 2 - 3 days. You will need to see your doctor for a follow up visit in 7 - 10 days.

Healing time depends on how much tissue was removed.


Robbins KT, Samant S, Ronen O. Neck Dissection. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund LJ, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2010:chap 121.

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