(Partial Glossectomy; Total Glossectomy; Hemiglossectomy)

Pronounced: Gloss –ek-to-me


A glossectomy is the surgical removal of the tongue. The surgery may be:

  • Partial—removal of part of the tongue
  • Hemi—one side of the tongue is removed
  • Total—removal of the whole tongue

Mouth Cavity After Total Glossectomy

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Reasons for Procedure    TOP

This surgery is used to treat tongue cancer when other treatments have not been successful.

Tongue Cancer

tongue cancer
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Possible Complications    TOP

Problems from the procedure occur, but all procedures have some risk. Your doctor will review potential problems, like:

  • Tongue bleeding
  • Infection
  • Airway blockage from swelling and bleeding
  • Trouble swallowing or eating and aspiration of liquids
  • Difficulty with speech or inability to speak
  • Weight loss
  • Failure of flap or reconstruction—occurs when transplanted skin or flap does not get enough blood flow
  • Recurrence of cancer

Before your procedure, talk to your doctor about ways to manage factors that may increase your risk of complications, such as:

What to Expect    TOP

Prior to Procedure

Your doctor may do the following:

  • Ask about your medical history, including whether you smoke or drink alcohol
  • Physical exam
  • Blood work
  • Biopsy of the tongue—a piece of tongue is removed and sent to a lab for testing to diagnose cancer
  • Pictures of structures inside the body may be taken

Leading up to the surgery:

  • Talk to your doctor about your medications. You may be asked to stop taking some medications up to one week before the procedure.
  • Arrange for a ride to and from the hospital.
  • Eat a light meal the night before. Do not eat or drink anything after midnight.
  • If you have diabetes, ask your doctor if you need to adjust your medications.


General anesthesia will be used. You will be asleep during the procedure.

Description of the Procedure    TOP

You will have a tracheotomy to allow you to breathe during and after surgery. This creates an opening from the outside of your neck to your windpipe. A tube is inserted through the opening to allow for air flow. It is usually temporary.

If part of the tongue needs to be removed, the doctor will remove this cancerous section. The remaining area of the tongue will be sewn so that there is no hole. Sometimes, a small graft of skin will be used to fill the hole. This skin graft will then be sewn into place.

If the entire tongue needs to be removed, this is a more complicated surgery. The doctor will remove the diseased tongue. A piece of skin from your wrist will also be removed. This skin graft will be placed in the hole left by the tongue. Blood vessels will also be attached from any remaining tongue to the graft. This is to ensure blood flow.

Occasionally a new tongue will be constructed from tissue removed from the thigh, forearm, or chest.

Sometimes the lymph nodes in the neck will also need to be removed.

How Long Will It Take?    TOP

Several hours

How Much Will It Hurt?    TOP

Anesthesia will prevent pain during surgery. Pain and discomfort after the procedure can be managed with medications.

Average Hospital Stay    TOP

7-10 days

Post-procedure Care    TOP

At the Hospital

While recovering at the hospital, you may receive the following care:

  • Supplemental oxygen for the first 1-2 days
  • Fluids and medications will be given through an IV.
  • Special boots or socks to help prevent blood clots—You will also be encouraged to get out of bed as soon as possible.
  • Instructions to breathe deeply and cough 10-20 times every hour for the first few days—This will decrease the risk of pneumonia.
  • Nutrition through a tube—When you are able to swallow, you will be able to have drinks and pureed food. If a total glossectomy is done, you may need a permanent feeding tube in your stomach.

In addition, your doctor may have you:

  • Work with a speech therapist to learn to speak and swallow after surgery
  • Begin radiation therapy to treat the cancer if it had not been given before

During your stay, the hospital staff will take steps to reduce your chance of infection, such as:

  • Washing their hands
  • Wearing gloves or masks
  • Keeping your incisions covered

There are also steps you can take to reduce your chance of infection, such as:

  • Washing your hands often and reminding your healthcare providers to do the same
  • Reminding your healthcare providers to wear gloves or masks
  • Not allowing others to touch your incision

At Home

You will need to continue working with a speech and therapist. Your doctor may advise self-care measures and medications to ease discomfort or prevent infection. Work with a dietitian to come up with a meal plan that works with your situation.

Call Your Doctor    TOP

It is important for you to monitor your recovery after you leave the hospital. Alert your doctor to any problems right away. If any of the following occur, call your doctor:

  • Signs of infection, including fever and chills
  • Difficulty swallowing or choking on food or liquids
  • Swelling, excessive bleeding, or discharge from mouth
  • Pain and/or swelling in the feet, calves, or legs
  • Cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, or severe nausea or vomiting
  • Increased pain
  • New or unexpected symptoms

If you think you have an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.


National Cancer Institute


Canadian Cancer Society


Dziegielewski PT, Ho ML, Rieger J, et al. Total glossectomy with laryngeal preservation and free flap reconstruction: Objective functional outcomes and systematic review of the literature. Laryngoscope. 2013;123(1):140-145.
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Kimata Y, Uchiyama K, Ebihara S, et al. Postoperative complications and functional results after total glossectomy with microvascular reconstruction. Plast Reconstr Surg. 2000;106(5):1028-1035.
Mehta S, Sarkar S, Kavarana N, Bhathena H, Mehta A. Complications of the pectoralis major myocutaneous flap in the oral cavity: a prospective evaluation of 220 cases. Plastic Reconstruc Surg. 1996;98(1):31-37.
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Accessed May 23, 2014.
What you need to know about oral cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at:
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Last reviewed June 2016 by Donald Buck, MD
Last Updated: 5/23/2014

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