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Physical Therapy for Pain

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Along with pain medications and other therapies, physical therapy can help to relieve pain in the chest and underarm areas due to surgery and/or radiation therapy.

  • Post-surgical pain can affect some women immediately after surgery, others not until months later. It can occur with any type of surgery — whether lumpectomy, mastectomy, or reconstruction — but it is more common when underarm lymph nodes are removed. The pain may feel like a tightness or burning sensation in the chest, underarm, and/or upper arm. Other symptoms can include stiffness, formation of scar tissue, limited range of motion, and lymphedema, which is the swelling of soft tissues caused by the buildup of lymph fluid.
  • Pain after radiation therapy is usually due to radiation fibrosis, the scarring of healthy tissue that can sometimes occur as a result of radiation. (This is different from the redness and irritation of the skin surface that can happen during radiation therapy.) Symptoms can develop months or even years after radiation treatments are finished. These may include pain, weakness, stiffness, limited range of motion, and lymphedema.

If you experience either type of pain, talk with your doctor about working with a physical therapist who specializes in helping patients recover from breast cancer treatment. In fact, you may want to consult with a physical therapist right before or soon after surgery or radiation therapy. Exercise can be helpful in preventing some of the pain and stiffness that surgery and radiation therapy can cause.

A physical therapist can help with:

  • strategies for preventing and treating lymphedema, such as specialized massage techniques, compression bandaging, and compression pumping (techniques that help to keep fluid from building up in the tissues)
  • manual stretching and soft tissue massage
  • instruction in stretching and strength-training exercises you can do on your own at home
  • information about exercise programs designed to build strength and range of motion
  • guidance about stepping up your level of activity safely over time

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