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Shoulder Pain after Breast Cancer Treatment

Shoulder Pain after Breast Cancer Treatment

Breast cancer treatment is a life-saving treatment and there are no two ways about its necessity, adequacy and curing capabilities. As you may know, cancer cannot be cured with mild treatment and when protecting the life of the patient is paramount, it calls for strong treatment modalities.  We are fortunate to have so many targeted treatments.  Due to the intensity of the breast cancer treatment, it may leave the patient with some side effects post the treatment regimen.  Physical ailments that arise out of breast cancer treatment can range from minor to major.  It may include experiencing pain, numbness and loss of mobility.  Almost all aspects of the treatment may cause stiffness, reduced range of motion of the body part and loss of strength.  The side effects may also include swelling and sensory disturbances.  One of the common repercussions post breast cancer treatment is shoulder pain.  It can become a potential challenge to go about and do your day-to-day activities, thereby limiting your body movements and affecting mentally as well.  Shoulder pain post breast cancer treatment can go to such an extent that a seemingly simple household chores like changing a ceiling light bulb or taking an item from the top shelf of the cupboard may be a hard thing to do.

According to statistics, up to 68% of people with breast cancer experience either shoulder pain or restricted motion of the shoulder during or after the course of treatment.  However, it should be understood that such problems generally are not a sign that your cancer has returned and started spreading.  In this article let us go through some of the shoulder problems that one may experience during the course of the breast cancer treatment.


As cancer treatment may cause inflammation of one or more rotator cuff tendons, tendinitis may set in.  Moreover, there can be muscle tightness post breast cancer surgery or other cancer treatments like radiation and chemotherapy.   This coupled with poor posture post treatment makes way for tendinitis.  Medical studies have thrown light on the relationship between breast cancer treatments and poor posture.  The pain arising out of tendinitis can become worse when lying on the affected side of the shoulder.  That is why tendinitis pain is felt severely at night.  Apart from this, there are chances of tendon getting compressed during the overhead lifting of the arm.

In order to get a good look at the anatomy of the shoulder and assess the extent of the problem, your doctor may order an x-ray and an MRI.  Ultrasound is another imaging modality that provides a detailed visualization of your tendons

Frozen shoulder:

Another common cause of shoulder ailments post breast cancer treatment is frozen shoulder, which means stiff shoulder and it may or may not elicit pain.  This problems sets in mainly due to lack of mobility of the affected arm post treatment.  Radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatments further aggravate the stiffness in the shoulder region.

How to diagnose and treat shoulder pains?

Finding a doctor who can diagnose your shoulder issues correctly is of utmost importance.  Once the correct diagnosis is zeroed in, the doctor can fashion a holistic treatment methodology to regain your lost shoulder health.

The doctor can bring in a physiotherapist to help in tailoring an effective treatment plan as physical and occupational therapy can do wonders in treating shoulder issues.  The rehabilitation programe may focus on improving range of motion, increasing the strength and flexibility of shoulder muscles and restoring proper posture.  Meanwhile, the doctor may prescribe an anti-inflammatory medicine to bring down the inflammation of the affected area.  If the symptoms are recalcitrant to conservative treatment, the doctor may go in for a cortisone injection which can help relieve pain and inflammation. This injection can even be administered using ultrasound scan to make sure that the drug is going right into the exact spot.

In the case of a frozen shoulder, if the condition is not amenable to conservative measures, the patient may be taken to the operation room to gently loosen the adhesions, so the shoulder moves smooth.  This technique is called manipulation under anesthesia.

Post surgery exercises to regain range of motion of the shoulder:

If you had surgery to remove the breast cancer and if you experience shoulder issues post surgery, an orthopedist or a physiotherapist can help you deal with the problem.  They can guide you as to how to move and exercise safely.  If your shoulder isn’t injured, you can begin a gentle exercise program.  You may not have energy to do it in full swing in the beginning, but it is important to carry on with it.  The following exercises can be considered to prevent losing too much shoulder motion and prevent you from aggravating the shoulder pain.  Do consult with your doctor before embarking on these exercises.

    • Shoulder circles
    • Shoulder raises
    • Arm raises
    • Arm lift
    • Arm crunches


Bear in mind that there is no magic wand to be wielded and the path to recovery may be slow and gradual, but it is certain that sticking to a disciplined rehabilitation protocol can resolve your shoulder pain sooner rather than later.



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