Arm Exercises After Breast Surgery

Stretching can help you recover arm/shoulder strength and flexibility

People with breast cancer will often undergo breast surgery to remove cancer and sometimes the lymph nodes near the armpit to prevent metastasis (spreading). Surgical procedures can affect a person's mobility and range of motion. Exercise, with the help of a physical therapist, can significantly improve mobility. However, it's important to wait until your breast surgeon gives the OK to start an exercise routine.

This article outlines the benefits of exercise after breast surgery and suggests some safe activities to get into after a period of rest and healing.

Caucasian woman stretching arms
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These include surgical procedures such as:

Even breast radiation therapy can cause muscle fibrosis (scarring) and impede upper body mobility unless you make an effort to exercise.

Without exercise, it is not uncommon for someone to experience a decreased range of motion of the arm and shoulder, adhesive capsulitis (frozen shoulder), or arm or hand lymphedema (lymph node obstruction that causes swelling).

Furthermore, because surgical adhesions (tissues that stick together following surgery) can affect the elasticity of your chest muscles, you may also need to practice deep breathing exercises to restore flexibility to those tissues. This is especially true if you've had radiation, since the lungs and muscles used for breathing (including the internal intercostal muscles, pectoralis major, and pectoralis minor) may be directly affected.

Importance of Exercise After Breast Surgery

Exercise is crucial after breast surgery for improving both physical and mental health. A study of 1,340 patients enrolled in the Diet, Exercise, Lifestyle and Cancer Prognosis (DELCaP) Study, published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institutes suggest that physical activity can help to prevent later recurrences of breast cancer and improve overall survival by reducing inflammation while improving strength and flexibility.

There is also mounting evidence that exercises including weight training may help women at risk for lymphedema, a painful swelling condition sometimes caused by the surgical removal of lymph nodes.

What's more, exercise is widely known to benefit mental health. People go through so many physical and emotionally-draining experiences during their cancer journey. Exercising alone is great, but exercising in groups is even better to help connect people with others going through the same experience.

Preparation

As much as you may want to speed through recovery, it is important to discuss your exercise plans with your healthcare provider before starting. Based on your physical condition, fitness level, and exercise experience, your healthcare provider may want you to first meet with a physical therapist who can show you how to exercise appropriately and safely.

As a rule of thumb, wait until your surgical drains are out before planning to exercise. Starting too soon can place undue pressure on your stitches, causing tears, bleeding, or puckering of the incision.

Once the drains are gone, and the holding stitches have been removed, you can start exercising gradually. The aim is to gently stretch the retracted tissues and release the adhesions without causing damage or tears.

Compression sleeves may also be used if you develop lymphedema. Wearing them can help relieve the build-up of fluid and may even help prevent lymphedema following mastectomy, lymph node dissection, or a sentinel node biopsy.

Never exercise to the point of pain. If you feel pain, stop immediately. If the pain is serious or persists for more than an hour, call your healthcare provider.

Recovery Period

Depending on the type of surgery, recovery may take anywhere from days to weeks to months. In the early days, the most important thing is rest, followed by taking pain medication as directed, eating nutritious meals, and staying hydrated. You may need help from a care partner to change bandages and keep an eye on stitches so that they don't become infected. If they become red and inflamed, contact your surgeon. Ask friends and family to help with light cleaning, cooking, and tending to others in the home like kids and pets.

Best Post-Surgery Exercises

The key is to keep moving even if it's just walking, which is one of the best forms of exercise. The goal is to build up overall strength to do everyday exercises.

Your physical therapist may recommend some of these exercises.

Arm circles: This exercise can help increase mobility.

Deep breathing: Deep breathing can be performed on its own or be incorporated into your exercise routine. The aim is to strengthen both the diaphragm (the muscle that separates the abdominal cavity from the chest cavity) and intercostal muscles by actively engaging both simultaneously.

Stretching: Exercises to increase your ability to move your shoulders forward, increase shoulder blade movement, open up your chest, and improve posture.

Running: You should wait at least two weeks after lumpectomy or partial mastectomy to run, some say more.

Swimming: This low impact exercise can be a great way to get in a workout.

Whatever the goal is of your exercise program, it is important to follow the same rules that apply to any workout. This includes warming up properly rather than jumping into a routine. You will also need to approach exercises correctly, neither overextending a joint nor engaging in more activity than is appropriate. Build in rest days to recover.

Exercises to Avoid

Sit ups: You should wait until at least six weeks after surgery to do any abdominal exercises.

Weight lifting: There are different recommendations around lifting weights over 10 pounds. Some doctors are concerned that weight lifting could worsen lymphedema, while others encourage it to improve your strength. If you were lifting heavy weights before, ask your surgeon and physical therapist how and when you can get back into that activity. Wait at least a month post-surgery before returning to a weight-bearing workout routine.

Anything that makes you feel like you're short of breath can also wait. Work your way up to something that your body can tolerate and set small goals.

Summary

The biggest takeaway following breast surgery of any kind is rest. Following that, taking small steps to increase regular home activities can lead to gains outside of the house as well. Listen to the physical therapist and try to do as much as they recommend, and don't overextend yourself with new exercises while you recover.

A Word From Verywell

Prioritize exercise to keep bones strong, your body flexible, and your mind at ease. The road to recovery from breast surgery can be a positive one with the right experts in your corner helping you along the way. Listen to your body and ask for help when needed.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long after breast surgery can I run?

    Depending on the surgery, it may be a matter of weeks. In the case of mastectomy and tissue expansion surgery, it may be six to eight weeks.

  • How soon can you exercise after breast surgery?

    This depends on your definition of exercise. For instance, walking around the house during your recovery to start is OK, and then increasing your distance during the next few weeks. With the guidance of a physical therapist, you may begin stretches and light exercises in the first weeks.

  • Can I lift weights after breast cancer surgery?

    It all depends on the type of surgery that you have just undergone. Your surgeon and a physical therapist can get you started with light weights and gradually work your way up to heavier weights according to your recovery and their safety recommendations.

Originally written by
Pam Stephan
Pam Stephan is a breast cancer survivor.
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8 Sources
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