Friday, January 21, 2011

Physical Therapy can Help with Common Upper Extremity Problems following Breast Cancer Surgery

© Cleo

Upper extremity pain and stiffness is common following surgery for breast cancer. According to McCredie et al, 7 out of 8 who have surgery for breast cancer experience some type of ongoing problem with shoulder/arm function, with most women presenting with more than one symptom. The prevalance of stiffness 6 months following surgery is greater than 40%; 60% have pain in the axilla or chest wall, and 25 to 50% experience weakness. (Kilbreath et al) These problems may not be resolved up to 2 years after surgery.

As a result of these postoperative problems, women may experience a reduced quality of life. Women may experience long term difficulties with everyday activities including: driving, dressing, washing their hair, and sleeping on the involved side. (Maunsell et al, Collins et al) For many women, the 'cure' produces other problems.

Physical therapists with specialized training in breast cancer rehabilitation are the ideal health care providers to address these musculoskeletal problems and help you achieve a pain free and fully functional lifestyle. Physical therapy intervention may address musculoskeletal problems regardless of how long ago your surgery may have been.

Physical therapy interventions aiming to decrease pain and improve function for those who have had breast cancer surgery may include:
  • Exercises including an individualized stretching and strengthening program

  • Manual therapy to improve the extensibility of tissue affected from surgery

  • Scar mobilization to decrease pain, improve mobility and range of motion

  • Aerobic exercise program to combat fatique and improve endurance

  • Patient education

  • Home program

At Fauquier Health Outpatient Rehabilitation Services, our cancer rehabilitation team, currently consisting of two physical therapists with specialized training, can provide these physical therapy interventions to patients with breast cancer.

If you have any questions for our cancer rehabilitation team, please call us at 540-316-2680 or click on the button below to submit an email inquiry.


Collins LG, Nash R, Round T, Newman B. Perceptions of upper-body problems during recovery from breast cancer treatment. Support Care Cancer: 2004: 12: 106-13.

Kilbreath S, Refshauge K, Beith J, MiJoung L. Resistance and stretching shoulder exercises early following axillary surgery for breast cancer. Rehabilitation Oncology: 2006: 24:9-13.

Maunsell E, Birsson J, Deschenes L. Arm problems and psychological distress after surgery for breast cancer. Can J Surg. 1993:36:315-320.

McCredie MRE, Dite GS, Porter L, et al. Prevalence of self-reported arm morbidity following treatment for breast cancer in the Australian Breast Cancer Family Study. Breast. 2001:50:292-311.

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