Shoulder pain after breast cancer treatment

Shoulder pain after breast cancer treatment is very common, as Osteopath and Exercise Physiologist Bailey Lang discusses below.

Last year, Exercise Physiologist Bailey Lang went back to university to study a Masters of Clinical Exercise Physiology. This was not because I had fallen out of love with being an Osteopath, but because my first passion before becoming an Osteopath was not only participating in exercise, but getting others to look after their own bodies with exercise.

During the course we studied not only musculoskeletal conditions and injuries, but a vast array of other health domains. One of these domains was Cancer, and boy oh boy, did this peak my interest. Cancer and its many different treatment regimes from surgery, chemotherapy and radiation to name a few, have many side effects on people. Pain and fatigue being two of the most common side effects for people.

So with this in mind, I went down to Melbourne a couple of weeks ago and participated in Prue Cormie’s course on Breast Cancer.

Breast cancer and it’s relationship to shoulder pain

Breast cancer is the leading cancer diagnosis in women in Australia. Through my 5 years as an Osteopath and just starting as an Exercise Physiologist, I have seen many women who come to see me with shoulder pain and dysfunction after breast cancer treatment.

Pain through the shoulder is very common after surgery, whether a lumpectomy, mastectomy and/or reconstruction is performed along with possibly having lymph node biopsy and/or clearance. The time spent during surgical procedures with your arm left in a position so that the area is exposed for the surgeon, then afterwards leaving the arm down and resting to allow healing of surgical incisions, and the formation of scar tissue leads to restricted shoulder range of motion and pain with movement.

It is very important for women after clearance from the surgeon to be assessed by an allied health professional such as an Osteopath or Exercise Physiologist, to help kick start recovery and get education on appropriate rehabilitation of the shoulder girdle.

How Exercise Physiology can help

Now I must admit, before studying Exercise Physiology, as an Osteopath we don’t learn through university the complexity and processes that occur for women with breast cancer (and other types of cancers, and for men also!), what medical treatment is like, the outcomes of the treatment not only physically, but the psychosocial aspects of diagnosis and treatment, and then recovery time needed after treatment. However, having gone back to study and learning everything from diagnosis to survival as an Exercise Physiologist, I have been able to take a step back and think, there is also a really good place for Osteopath’s to help in the recovery from breast cancer treatment. I have a much greater appreciation and understanding now of why shoulder pain and dysfunction is so prominent in women after surgery and treatment.

As an Osteopath given our holistic approach to treatment we focus on the shoulders function and movement, but also look at the areas that will also be affected by shoulder pain, such as the neck, upper back and sometimes lower back. During the session we use lots of different treatment techniques to help relieve pain and improve movement of the affected shoulder region. The manual treatment provided is important to aid with pain relief and improve movement, but it is only half of the story when it comes to recovery of shoulder function. A tailored and specific exercise rehab program is also needed to help strengthen the shoulder.

When it comes to shoulder pain and injuries, and this also includes non-cancer related shoulder injuries, we look at this process:

  • Reduce pain
  • Improve shoulder range of motion and flexibility
  • Improve shoulder muscle strength and endurance
  • Improve shoulder functional and performance related activities

When this has been introduced early after treatment, you are able to significantly reduce the recovery time, compared to usual care or no care.

If you or someone you know is currently going through this, or you are about to go through this, don’t hesitate to get in contact with Bailey at Sports & Spinal Albury on (02) 6021 1975, or book online here.

Dr Bailey Lang

B Hlth Sc, M Hlth Sc (Osteo), M Clin Ex Phys,


More Resources on Breast Cancer Rehabilitation here :

Clinical Oncology Society of Australia –

Breast Cancer Network Australia-  AND

Cancer Council-

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