Head and neck surgery is a subspecialty that provides advanced surgical care for the head, face, neck, and throat. Most head and neck surgeons begin their careers as otolaryngologists (ENTs) or plastic surgeons, but becoming certified as a head and neck surgeon requires additional training.
A surgeon who treats the head and neck has very specific considerations to take into account when operating. The delicate structures of the head and neck control our senses, our speech, our ability to chew and swallow food, and even our ability to breathe. A head and neck surgeon has to be careful to preserve the many functions of the head and neck when performing an operation. Also, when operating on or around the face, extreme care must be taken to leave as few scars as possible, since the face is a critical part of identity and social interaction. It all adds up to a tricky job.
Some of the issues a head and neck surgeon might treat include:
Trauma to the face or neck
Thyroid disorders requiring surgery
Tonsillectomies / adenoidectomies
Cleft palate repair
Disorders of the larynx (voice box)
Cancers, especially of the esophagus, mouth, lips, and skin around the face or throat, are one of the most common issues requiring head or neck surgery. Most often, head and neck cancers are related to tobacco use. Chewing tobacco in particular affects the lips and mouth. Other risk factors for head and neck cancers include alcohol use and sun exposure.
Often after surgery, but particularly after the removal of a tumor, head and neck surgeons will perform reconstructive surgery, including microvascular surgery to connect or replace skin tissue. The goal is to restore not only a patient’s function but also their appearance in this critical area of the body, improving self-esteem.
Otolaryngologists are also called 'ENTs' because their area of specialty is the ears, nose, and throat. Otolaryngologists treat most of the diseases and disorders that affect the head or neck. They can provide routine medical care, such as giving hearing tests or treating chronic conditions such as allergies. Otolaryngologists also perform a number of surgeries on the head and neck. Some of the illnesses and issues that otolaryngologists treat include:
Ear problems - hearing loss, infections, tinnitus or ringing on the ears, balance disorders, trauma or fracture of the temporal bone, prominent or large ears (using 'ear pinning' plastic surgery)
Nose issues - sinus infections, allergies, nasal polyps, smell disorders
Throat issues - voice and swallowing problems, infections or trauma to the larynx or esophagus, sleep disorders (such as sleep apnea)
Head and neck problems - infections, trauma, tumors, conditions requiring plastic surgery
Because they perform so many delicate surgeries of the face, otolaryngologists are often sought out as plastic surgeons when facial surgery is required. Their specialized knowledge of the anatomy of the head and face can make a real difference in the outcome of a surgery, from a brow lift to a total facial reconstruction after trauma.