Physical Therapy After Breast Cancer

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October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Most people are aware of this disease, and hopefully many are taking active steps for screening, which can help to detect breast cancer in its early stages.  Did you know that physical therapy can be an important part of a breast cancer treatment plan?  Women with breast cancer often need surgery, such as breast biopsy, lymph node biopsy or removal, lumpectomy, mastectomy, and breast reconstruction.  Chemotherapy and/or radiation may also be prescribed for treatment.  All of these procedures can cause scarring and can change the mobility of muscle, skin, and other soft tissues, decreasing the range of movement in the upper extremity (the arm).  Loss of movement can in turn result in difficulty with reaching, lifting, and multiple other activities of daily living.

Several common symptoms resulting from surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation that can be addressed with physical therapy are:

  1. Stiffness in chest, shoulder, and back muscles
  2. Swelling and numbness or other skin sensation change in the area near a surgical incision site
  3. Nerve irritation which can cause numbness, pain, or tingling
  4. Fatigue and limited endurance
  5. Strength deficits in the shoulder and arm

Typically, physical therapy treatment for these issues can be safely initiated soon after a surgical procedure.  Types of treatment interventions in physical therapy after surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy often include:

  1. Joint mobilizations: gentle encouragement of movement at the shoulder, upper back, or scapula (shoulder blade)
  2. Soft tissue mobilization: various types of  specialized massage targeted at muscle and/or scar tissue
  3. Strengthening and endurance training for scapular (shoulder blade) and shoulder muscles
  4. Prevention strategies and/or treatment of swelling in the upper extremity (arm) or chest or back regions
  5. Patient education: planning for energy conservation, gradual aerobic conditioning, movement strategies, etc

Physical therapy treatment should be personalized, to address individualized restrictions and activity limitations.  Treatments provided in the clinic should be complemented with home activities that will help to further progress made in supervised treatment.  Patients with breast cancer will usually see benefits in terms of range of motion and strength capacity fairly immediately.  In addition, incorporating physical activity into cancer care has been shown to improve mood, increase energy, and promote better sleep.

If you have questions about your particular situation, or would like to include physical therapy as a part of your cancer treatment plan, the therapists at Symmetry would be happy to help.  Please call us at (512) 339-1500 to schedule an evaluation.



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