Importance: Voice changes after thyroidectomy are typically attributed to recurrent laryngeal nerve injury. However, most postoperative voice changes occur in the absence of clinically evident vocal fold paralysis. To date, no study has compared the prevalence, duration, and consequences of voice-related disability from the patient perspective with use of quantitative vocal measures.
Objectives: To assess the quality-of-life consequences of postthyroidectomy voice change from the perspective of patients with thyroid cancer and to compare patient-perceived voice changes with changes in quantitative vocal variables at 5 time points in the first postoperative year.
Design, setting, and participants: This prospective mixed methods observational study within a randomized clinical trial occurred at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics. Participants were 42 patients with clinically node-negative papillary thyroid cancer without a preexisting vocal cord paralysis who were recruited and enrolled from outpatient clinics between June 6, 2014, and March 6, 2017, as part of the ongoing randomized clinical trial.
Intervention: Total thyroidectomy.
Main outcomes and measures: Semistructured interviews, symptom prevalence, and instrumental voice evaluations (laryngoscopy, phonation threshold pressure, Dysphonia Severity Index, and Voice Handicap Index) occurred at baseline (n = 42) and 2-week (n = 42), 6-week (n = 39), 6-month (n = 35), and 1-year (n = 30) postoperative time points.
Results: Participants had a mean age of 48 years (interquartile range, 38-58 years; age range, 22-70 years) and were mostly female (74% [31 of 42]) and of white race/ethnicity (98% [41 of 42]). Impaired communication was the primary theme derived from patient interviews from before thyroidectomy to after thyroidectomy. Voice changes were perceived by 24 participants at 2 weeks after thyroidectomy. After surgery, voice symptoms were prevalent and persisted for 50% (21 of 42) of participants out to at least 1 year of follow-up. Quantitative vocal perturbations were detected in the Dysphonia Severity Index and Voice Handicap Index at the 2-week follow-up but returned to baseline levels by the 6-week follow-up visit.
Conclusions and relevance: Voice changes are common after surgery for papillary thyroid cancer and affect quality of life for many patients out to 1 year of follow-up. Directly querying patients about postoperative voice changes and questioning whether commonly used aerodynamic and acoustic variables detect meaningful voice changes are important in identifying patients whose quality of life has been affected by postthyroidectomy dysphonia.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT02138214.