Surgical Procedures: Maxillectomy

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed: October 22, 2018

What is a maxillectomy and how is it performed?

The maxilla is the upper portion of the jaw bone. Surgery to remove the maxilla is called a maxillectomy. It can be used to treat cancer of the oral cavity (inside the mouth), nasal cavity (inside the nose) and/or maxillary sinuses (pockets located in the bones of the face). 

There are several different types of maxillectomy:

  • Medial maxillectomy: the part of the maxilla that is next to the nose is removed. This can be done in one of two ways: an incision on the face or using tools inserted through the nostril. Reconstructive surgery is not often needed.
  • Infrastructure maxillectomy: removes the hard palate (roof of the mouth), lower portion of the maxilla and teeth. It does not require the removal of the orbital floor (bone below eye). Reconstructive surgery is often needed.
  • Suprastructure maxillectomy: the upper portion of the maxilla and orbital floor (bone below eye) is removed. In some cases the orbit (bone around eye) may be left in place. Due to the removal of the eye, reconstructive surgery is needed.
  • Subtotal maxillectomy: removes only part of the maxilla using some variation of the above procedures. 
  • Total maxillectomy: removes the entire maxilla on one side (unilateral) as well as the hard palate and orbital floor (bone below eye). Reconstructive surgery, possibly with prosthetics, will be needed after this surgery.

Note: In some cases, chronic tearing is a problem for patients depending on the surgery they have undergone. This happens because there is a blockage in the tubes that normally drain tears. Your surgeon may place small tubes to allow the tears to drain into the nose. Other surgeries including skin grafting, the placement of a tracheostomy (tube/hole that allows you to breathe through the neck), and/or feeding tube may also be needed.

Some of these procedures require the use of prosthetic (artificial) devices to fill in the roof of the mouth where the bone was removed. This helps makes it possible to eat, speak and swallow as normally as possible. A prosthetic device may also be used to keep skin grafts in place. 

What are the risks associated with a maxillectomy?

As with any surgery, there are risks and possible side effects. These can be:

  • Reaction to anesthesia (Anesthesia is the medication you are given to help you sleep through the surgery, not remember it and manage pain. Reactions can include wheezing, rash, swelling and low blood pressure)
  • Bleeding
  • Hematoma (Collection of blood that will go away on its own or need to be treated with surgery)
  • Infection
  • Blood clots, including a pulmonary embolus (blood clot in the lung)
  • Enophthalmos (A condition when the eye sinks into the cheek)
  • Nerve damage causing numbness in the cheek
  • Numbness or weakness
  • Epiphora (Chronic eye tearing)

Before surgery, your surgeon will talk to you about any other risks based on your health and the specific surgery you are having. 

What is recovery like?

Recovery from a maxillectomy will depend on the extent of the procedure you have had. Often, a one to two week hospital stay is needed. In some cases, a temporary feeding tube may be needed to provide you with nutrition during and after the healing process.

You will be told how to care for your incisions and will be given any other instructions prior to leaving the hospital. You provider will talk to you about the need to change your diet, feeding tube care, tracheostomy care, as well as the need for rehabilitative and/or speech therapy.

Your medical team will discuss with you the medications you will be taking, such as those for pain, blood clot, infection, and constipation prevention and/or other conditions.

Your provider will talk to you about activity restrictions, which will depend on the surgery you had. Often, it is recommended that you:

  • Avoid strenuous activity for 2 weeks following surgery or until approved by your surgical team. This includes bending, lifting and/or straining.
  • Change your diet as directed. If you are able to eat and drink, it is often suggested that you avoid hot food/liquids because of the potential for facial numbness.
  • Shower as directed.
  • Brush teeth as directed. You should brush your teeth with a soft toothbrush and do saline irrigations of the nasal cavity as directed.

What will I need at home?

  • Thermometer to monitor for fever and infection.
  • Wound, feeding tube and tracheostomy stoma care supplies, if needed.

When to Call Your Doctor

Your provider should give you instructions about when to call the office. It is often suggested you call the office if you have:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fevers of >101° F
  • Increasing swelling
  • Pain unrelieved with pain medication

How can I care for myself? 

You may need a family member or friend to help you with your daily tasks until you are feeling better. It may take some time before your team tells you that it is ok to go back to your normal activity. 

Be sure to take your prescribed medications as directed to prevent pain, infection and/or constipation. Call your team with any new or worsening symptoms. 

There are ways to manage constipation after your surgery. You can change your diet, drink more fluids, and take over-the-counter medications. Talk with your care team before taking any medications for constipation.  

Taking deep breaths and resting can help manage pain, keep your lungs healthy after anesthesia, and promote good drainage of lymphatic fluid. Try to do deep breathing and relaxation exercises a few times a day in the first week, or when you notice you are extra tense. 

  • Example of a relaxation exercise: While sitting, close your eyes and take 5-10 slow deep breaths. Relax your muscles. Slowly roll your head and shoulders. 

This article contains general information. Please be sure to talk to your care team about your specific plan and recovery.   

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