Pain and changes in sensation

Some breast cancer treatments can cause pain or changes to sensation due to nerve damage. Your doctor can prescribe painkillers to help. They can also refer you to a physiotherapist who can give you advice about exercises that will help.

If these problems continue or develop after treatment finishes, they are called late effects.

Changes caused by surgery

Surgery can cause changes in sensation in the chest area, the armpit, and the shoulder and arm on the affected side.

These can include:

  • sharp, shooting or burning pain
  • aching pain
  • sensitivity to touch or to the cold
  • numbness or pins and needles.

These symptoms happen because the nerves in the chest area or armpit are cut or injured during surgery. These symptoms are common, particularly after surgery to remove all the lymph nodes in the armpit. Symptoms usually improve with time, but in some cases they may take months or years to get better.

If you have an aching pain in the breast, wearing a supportive sports bra during the day and a soft bra with no underwire at night may help. You may find that bras with adjustable straps, soft seams and full cups are more comfortable.

Painkillers

Describing your symptoms clearly will help your doctor to prescribe the right painkiller for you. Simple painkillers such as paracetamol, or anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, can often control the pain. But if you have nerve pain (shooting or burning pain), you may need other types of painkillers.

Changes caused by radiotherapy

Very rarely, radiotherapy to treat breast cancer can damage the nerves in the shoulder. This is called brachial plexus neuropathy. It can cause problems with pain and numbness. In extreme cases it can cause loss of movement. As radiotherapy techniques have improved, this problem is now very rare.

Although this condition cannot be reversed, the symptoms can be improved with drug treatment and physiotherapy. Physiotherapy involves doing exercises to strengthen the muscles and keep them supple. The physiotherapist will also be able to show you how to use slings or splints to support your arm, if needed.

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