Neck and Upper Limb Dysfunction in Patients following Neck Dissection: Looking beyond the Shoulder

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To measure patient-perceived upper limb and neck function following neck dissection and to investigate potential associations between clinical factors, symptoms, and function.

Study Design



Two tertiary hospitals in Brisbane, Australia.

Subjects and Methods

Inclusion criteria: patients treated with neck dissection (2009-2014). Exclusion criteria: aged <18 years, accessory nerve or sternocleidomastoid sacrifice, previous neck dissection, preexisting shoulder/neck injury, and inability to provide informed consent (cognition, insufficient English). Primary outcomes were self-reported function of the upper limb (Quick Disabilities of the Arm, Shoulder, and Hand) and neck (Neck Disability Index). Secondary outcomes included demographics, oncological management, self-efficacy, and pain. Generalized linear models were prepared to examine relationships between explanatory variables and self-reported function.


Eighty-nine participants (male n = 63, 71%; median age, 62 years; median 3 years since surgery) reported mild upper limb and neck dysfunction (median [quartile 1, quartile 3] scores of 11 [3, 32] and 12 [4, 28], respectively). Significant associations were found between worse upper limb function and longer time since surgery (coefficient, 1.76; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.01-3.51), having disease within the thyroid (17.40; 2.37-32.44), postoperative radiation therapy (vs surgery only) (13.90; 6.67-21.14), and shoulder pain (0.65; 0.44-0.85). Worse neck function was associated with metastatic cervical lymph nodes (coefficient, 6.61; 95% CI, 1.14-12.08), shoulder pain (0.19; 0.04-0.34), neck pain (0.34; 0.21-0.47), and symptoms of neuropathic pain (0.61; 0.25-0.98).


Patients can experience upper limb and neck dysfunction following nerve-preserving neck dissection. The upper quadrant as a whole should be considered when assessing rehabilitation priorities after neck dissection.

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