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Physical Therapy Helps Breast Cancer Recovery


November 2, 2022

Breast-Cancer-Recovery

Physical Therapy for Breast Cancer Survivors

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States each year. Given its adverse effects, breast cancer recovery for survivors is complex. Usually, it involves a variety of health specialties, one of which is often physical therapy. Unfortunately, side effects such as pain, lymphedema, weakness, and a decreased range of motion may present themselves to those who undergo treatment to combat breast cancer. However, physical therapy can speed up healing and breast cancer recovery time and assist with patients’ return to previous activity levels post-surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy treatments.   

After Effects of Breast Cancer 

Breast cancer survivors may face negative impacts even after being named cancer free. Chemotherapy, surgery and radiation may leave patients with side effects they were not previously experiencing. Physical therapy helps reduce fatigue, bone and joint pain, scar tissue formation, Axillary Web Syndrome, Lymphedema, and headaches. It also builds strength and range of motion.   

Axillary Web Syndrome After Breast Cancer Treatment 

Most patients find it difficult and painful to lift their arms after breast reconstruction or radiation therapy. Some women may even develop Axillary Web Syndrome (AWS), also known as cording, tethering, or branding. It occurs in the arm, armpit, trunk, or breast after surgery or breast cancer treatment. The condition is painful and limits patients’ ability to lift their arms and straighten their elbows. Sometimes, patients cannot raise their arms past a certain point to continue their cancer treatment and must go to physical therapy to regain mobility.   

Lymphedema After Breast Cancer Treatment 

Often, lymph nodes are removed during surgery to ensure that cancer has not spread. Their removal disrupts the flow of lymph, which may cause swelling in areas where the lymph nodes are no longer present. This is called lymphedema, which can impact the arms, head, neck, belly, genitals, or legs. Radiation may also play a role in scarring and swelling. It may occur any time after surgery or radiation treatment, and the risk of getting it continues throughout the patient’s life. While it is uncurable, it is manageable. 

Migraine Headaches After Breast Cancer Treatment 

Arms, chest, and breasts are not the only places women experience pain throughout their cure and recovery. Many will develop headaches and migraines as a side effect of some medicines and treatment methods used for breast cancer. Migraine headaches can have a significant impact on the quality of life. However, medicines are not the only reason those with breast cancer may develop chronic migraines. Some women may experience them because of the stress and lifestyle changes associated with the disease. Reduced sleep and activity levels are common factors breast cancer patients deal with that may contribute to migraines.   

How Can Physical Therapy Help During Breast Cancer Recovery? 

Breast cancer treatment and recovery have a wide range of side effects. However, physical therapy helps women cope and reduce these symptoms. Your physical therapist will work with you to create a personalized plan of care specific to your goals and symptoms. They will help you improve your strength and mobility and provide movement and positioning strategies that reduce discomfort with daily activities.   

PT Solutions uses manual therapy techniques such as soft tissue massage, manual lymph drainage, trigger point release, dry needling, and joint mobilization. The combination of manual therapy and targeted physical activity can reduce pain and improve shoulder and upper body mobility. The exercises can also improve strength, aerobic endurance, and confidence with movement.   

Treating Lymphedema with Physical Therapy  

Lymphedema treatments vary from patient to patient, depending on the severity of the condition. For example, those with minimal swelling will have a different plan of care than those with more swelling. One of the ways we treat lymphedema includes manual lymphatic drainage. This technique gently massages specific body areas to help lymph move to working lymph vessels. Our therapists may also create a plan that promotes aerobic exercise and conditioning that facilitates drainage. We work to strengthen affected areas and educate patients on proper compression garment wear, skincare, and risk of infection and injury.   

Treating Axillary Web Syndrome with Physical Therapy 

Breast cancer survivors who develop Axillary Web Syndrome (AWS) can get rid of it or decrease symptoms with physical therapy. Your physical therapist will help you learn and perform stretches and exercises that extend the cords and increase the range of motion. Patients can do these both in and outside the clinic for the best results. Your therapist may gently massage the cord tissue while you extend your arm. Each method brings relief to those who develop AWS after beating breast cancer. 

Treating Migraine Headaches with Physical Therapy  

There are a variety of treatments your physical therapist may use to treat migraine headaches during breast cancer recovery. Manual therapy techniques may decrease the stiffness in the joints and muscles leading to improved head and neck mobility. Your therapist may recommend dry needling in addition to exercise and manual therapy to combat migraine headaches. Your therapist will educate you on exercises that help and specific migraine triggers such as stress, lifestyle changes, dietary and sleep habits, and activity levels.

How to Take Back Your Life After Breast Cancer

These are various treatment styles that help alleviate the symptoms associated with breast cancer recovery. Each patient’s recovery journey is different. For some women, their personalized plan of care may focus more on increasing the range of motion in their arms. Others may be looking for ways to help treat their migraines that do not involve constantly taking medication. Through the physical therapy process, we work with each woman to identify her specific goals for treatment. We strive to help them return to previous lifestyle activities with minimal pain and limitations.   

If you or someone you know is a breast cancer survivor and think you might benefit from physical therapy services, find a clinic near you. 

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