Arm movement after breast cancer treatment

Radiotherapy and surgery for breast cancer can affect the range of movement and strength in your arm or shoulder.

Movement and strength in your arm and shoulder

Radiotherapy and surgery, especially to the armpit, can affect the range of movement and strength in your arm or shoulder. This may change your ability to do everyday activities, such as household tasks or your work. It may also interfere with some types of exercise, such as swimming or tennis.

After breast surgery, a physiotherapist usually gives you exercises that will help you recover shoulder movement. Doing these will help your arm and shoulder movement slowly improve after treatment. If problems continue, it is called a late effect.

Tips to help improve movement and strength

  • See a physiotherapist

    Ask your doctor to refer you. They can show you some exercises to improve movement and strength. If your problems continue, the physiotherapist may be able to give you different exercises. Having good posture is also important. Your physiotherapist can give you advice on this.

  • Tell your doctor if you have pain

    Problems with pain may mean that you are not using your arm or shoulder properly. This can make things worse. Your doctor can prescribe painkillers to help improve movement and relieve stiffness.

  • Relax your muscles before exercise

    Take painkillers half an hour before you exercise, or have a warm bath. This can help relax your muscles. If you still cannot do your exercises, or you find them painful, then stop.

  • Avoid doing things that cause pain

    If it hurts to reach out and lift or carry heavy things with the affected arm and shoulder, avoid doing these things. Use a shopping trolley instead of a basket, shop online and get heavy things delivered. Try to make sure that objects you use often are low down and easy to reach.

  • See an occupational therapist

    If you are having difficulty doing daily tasks, ask your doctor to refer you to an occupational therapist (OT). They can assess your needs and suggest aids or equipment to help you.

  • Accept offers of help

    Let people know what kind of practical help you need. They could help you with tasks like shopping, taking the rubbish out or mowing the lawn.

  • Ask about complementary therapies

    Complementary therapies such as relaxation or deep breathing exercises may be helpful. Ask your doctor, nurse or physiotherapist for advice on these.