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Arm Exercises After Breast Surgery

Recover Your Arm and Shoulder Strength and Flexibility

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Updated May 08, 2014

Arm exercises were the last thing on my mind after my mastectomy. My Reach to Recovery volunteer demonstrated the post-surgical arm exercises to me, and described her own shoulder problems after her breast surgery. I was feeling fine, so I skipped doing the exercises -- a bad decision. Slowly, I developed a frozen shoulder, and then a light case of lymphedema. Don't make my mistake. Talk to your doctor about your readiness to do these arm exercises, and then begin gently moving your way towards recovery.

Breast Surgery and Radiation Have Side Effects

If you've had breast surgery, lymph node removal, or breast radiation, you will need to do some exercises to help you recover. Arm exercises can help you reduce side effects of treatment and get you back to normal activities.

Breast surgery can affect the range of motion in your arm and shoulder. A mastectomy, lumpectomy, or breast reconstruction changes your balance and affects nerves and lymphatic circulation. These in turn can lead to shoulder stiffness, and problems with bathing, dressing, and grooming. When your lymph nodes have been removed, you may develop some hand or arm lymphedema. Exercises, and in some cases, pressure sleeves can help prevent and relieve these side effects.

Breast radiation may change the ease with which you breathe, as well as affect your arm and shoulder during and several months after treatment. Because breast radiation may sometimes affect your lungs, deep breathing exercises may be needed to help you regain your full lung capacity. If your arm and shoulder are likewise affected, arm exercises can help loosen and stretch muscles and connective tissues.

Getting Started with Arm Exercises After Breast Surgery

Be sure to discuss your exercise plans with your doctor before you start. Your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist or a Reach to Recovery volunteer, so that you can learn the proper way to do arm exercises.

Wait until your surgical drains are out to start exercising. There's no need to strain the holding stitch that keeps the drainage tube in place on your chest. If your breast incision stitches are still in place, move gently when exercising to avoid tearing your skin or causing your incision to pucker. Once the drains are gone and your stitches are out, you can start exercising (as you feel able). Do not do any of the exercises to the point of pain.

Warm Up for Arm Exercises After Breast Surgery

For any exercise routine, good preparation helps you meet your exercise goals. You want to regain arm motion, reduce pain and swelling, and return to normal activities. Here are some things to keep in mind before you start:
  • Wear loose, comfortable clothing for exercise. It isn't about looking good; it's about feeling better and moving easily.
  • Try taking a warm shower or a tub soak before starting your exercises to relax your muscles. This may also cut down on pain. Or, try taking ibuprofen about 30 minutes before exercising. A hot pack on your shoulder for 20 minutes may also help.
  • Do the exercises slowly and gently -- you're going for a good stretch, not a burn or a new speed record. Pain is a signal that you should stop, rest, or work more gently.
  • Remember to breathe in and out deeply while you are exercising. You need to inflate your lungs, bringing oxygen into your body, then relax and breathe out.
  • It is normal to feel some tightness in your chest and armpit after breast surgery, and where nerves have been cut, you may feel numb. Exercising gently will help relieve these sensations.

How to Get the Most Benefit from Arm Exercises

Any good exercise routine should be regular, so build this into your schedule. Set aside two times a day when you can go through a set of arm exercises. Play some soothing, positive music while you stretch. Repeat each exercise 5 to 7 times, doing it as correctly as you can. As you recover, you can add repetitions or stretch a little farther. If you can't do the exercises, or they are painful, consult your doctor. And if you don't notice any improvement in arm motion as a result of exercising, get your doctor to evaluate your range of motion and discuss your options. It is possible to get your arms and shoulders moving again, but it takes time. Don't give up.

Sources:

Exercises After Breast Surgery. American Cancer Society. Accessed: June 2009; last revised: 07/30/2008.

Exercise and secondary lymphedema: safety, potential benefits, and research issues. Hayes SC, Reul-Hirche H, Turner J. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Mar;41(3):483-9.

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