The 5 Best Exercises to Do After a Mastectomy, According to Oncology PTs

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Recovering from a mastectomy is no easy feat. The procedure itself involves the removal of an entire breast (sometimes both breasts), and healing time can range from three to six weeks, per Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. During recovery it’s not uncommon to experience a host of different sensations in your arm, breast, and chest including tenderness, numbness, and twinges.

Kelly Sturm, oncology and lymphedema physical therapist, says pain, tightness, and swelling are also very common after a major surgery like a mastectomy. Additionally, because of the attachment between the chest muscles (pectoralis) and shoulders, if a proper recovery plan isn’t created and executed shoulder dysfunction or rotator cuff injuries could occur as well.

“Stretching is the most important exercise after a surgery to maximize the muscle health and length,” Strum says. “Tightness can lead to shoulder issues, back pain, neck pain, and more.”

Alexandra Hill, PT, DPT, agrees, adding that “research shows that shoulder strength and range of motion are both significantly reduced in the early post-operative healing time after mastectomy.” Gentle exercises are crucial after a surgery to get the muscles working, she tells POPSUGAR. That said, “patients should work with a cancer rehabilitation specialist in their area to determine the most appropriate exercise plan to address their specific side effects & impairments,” says Elise K. Cantu, oncology physical therapist & owner of Fort Worth Cancer Care.

Given how important these gentle, rehabilitative exercises are after a mastectomy, POPSUGAR chatted with oncology physical therapists to get their favorite mobility movements for post-op chest tightness. From shoulder rolls to scapular squeezes, these exercises will all help jumpstart your range of motion.

What Causes Chest Tightness Post-Mastectomy?

Tightness after a mastectomy could be caused by several changes to the body, including the shortening of the chest muscles, new inflammation and scar tissue, or the impact of breast reconstruction on the muscles, experts say. That’s why Sturm recommends following your surgeon’s instructions closely when it comes to the type of exercises you are able to do in order to avoid causing injury to the area. Once you’re cleared by your surgeon Sturm recommends light exercises to improve shoulder range of motion and chest stretches to help with tightness and pain.

Exercises to Relieve Post-Op Chest Tightness

“Exercises that focus on improving mobility and flexibility of the shoulders and chest are key,” Hill says. “These mobility exercises will help with muscle tightness as well as improve scar mobility, decrease pain, and help you get back to your full range of motion for daily activities.” Here are 5 mobility exercises that meet that criteria, plus video instruction from Sturm. These can be done 2 to 3 times per day to help with recovery.

Shoulder Rolls (begins at 2:46)

  1. Begin in supported chair or standing tall.
  2. Slowly roll your shoulders forward, up, back and down.
  3. Repeat this 10 times.
  4. Reverse the direction of the roll. (Forward, down, and back.)

Wall Walk Flexion (begins at 4:18)

  1. Begin standing facing a wall (roughly 1 foot from it.)
  2. Place your hands on the wall
  3. Slowly walk your fingers up the wall.
  4. Reach up until you feel a stretch.

(Note: If you have drains in, only go to shoulder height.)

  1. Pause for 5 seconds, then walk your fingers back down to their starting position.
  2. Repeat 10 times.

Tips: Keep your shoulders away from your ears and relaxed.

Wall Walk Abduction

  1. Begin standing perpendicular to the wall about 1 to 2 feet way.
  2. Bend your elbow and place your hand on the wall.
  3. Walk your fingers up the wall until you feel a stretch.

(Note: If you have drains in, only go to shoulder height.)

  1. Pause for 5 seconds, then walk your fingers back down to their starting position.
  2. Continue 10 times. Then repeat on the opposite side.

Tips: Keep your shoulders away from your ears and relaxed

Neck Rotation (Begins at 2:00)

1. Start standing or sitting.

2. Gentle take your gaze to the right

4. Pause for 3-5 seconds, then take your gaze to the left.

5. Repeat 10 times

Scapular Squeeze (Begins at 3:18)

  1. Begin standing with your feet hips distance.
  2. Bring your elbows to your sides and bend them 90 degrees.
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  4. Bring your elbows behind you and toward your spine.

(Note: keep your shoulders relaxed.)

  1. Hold for 5 seconds, then return to starting position.
  2. Repeat 10 times.

How to Work These Mobility Moves into Your Recovery Routine

Most surgeons want their patients to avoid significant exercise until surgical drains are removed. That said, “once cleared, gentle stretches or exercises done 1 to 2 times a day for a few weeks can help with recovery,” Sturm says.

“Healing after a mastectomy can take up to 6-8 weeks depending on the type of mastectomy,” Hill adds. “So, it’s important to continue with mobility exercises 2 to 3 times per day at least through this time period of 6-12 weeks as the tissues continue to heal.” As you work through mobility movements as your body starts to heal, be mindful of any extreme discomfort. If you experience increasing pain, sudden or severe shortness of breath, dizziness, or your body feels “off,” you should discontinue your exercise session, Cantu says.

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