Hands hold a pink breast cancer awareness ribbon.

Can Physiotherapy Help Swelling After Breast Cancer Surgery?

pt HealthIs This Normal?


Did you know that physiotherapy can help treat the swelling that can occur after breast cancer surgery and treatment? If you’ve undergone treatment for breast cancer, you may notice that your hand and arm have become swollen and painful. Your healthcare team may have used terms like ‘lymphedema’ and ‘manual lymphatic drainage,’ but what do these words actually mean? In honour of Breast Cancer Awareness month, this blog post will help demystify the concept of swelling post breast cancer surgery and help you make an informed decision about physiotherapy to help you regain function.

What is Lymph?

In short, lymph is a colourless, white cell containing, liquid that drains through the lymphatic system into the bloodstream. All the tissues in your body surrounded by fluid called “interstitial fluid.” Interstitial fluid helps transport nutrients to where they’re needed and also remove waste products made by cells of the body. This fluid moves back into blood circulation through the lymphatic system which is a network of tubes (vessels), and lymph nodes (small glands located throughout the body that filters lymph) that are separate from your arteries and veins. The interstitial fluid becomes “lymph” once it enters the lymphatic vessels.

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is the swelling of the extremities (including arms, legs, or hands). It happens when the lymphatic vessels or lymph nodes are damaged. When the lymphatic system is damaged, lymph has a harder time pumping back into the blood circulation and essentially backs up into the tissues causing swelling. The backup of fluid that occurs in the tissues is called lymphedema.
With lymphedema you may experience a host of symptoms including:

    • Swollen limb(s)
    • Discomfort or Pain
    • Skin issues (including warts, cracked skin, etc.)
    • Hardening of the skin and tissues of the arm
    • Difficulty with fine motor tasks
    • Reduced range of motion

When Should I be concerned?

Other conditions can mimic lymphedema including disease of the heart, kidney, metabolic issues, and blood clots. A thorough examination from a doctor is necessary to help rule out serious conditions that may require immediate medical intervention. Once you are diagnosed with lymphedema, your physiotherapist can help work with you to create a custom treatment plan to suit your specific needs.

Is Swelling After Breast Cancer Surgery Normal?

Swelling of the arms, hands, and fingers after breast cancer surgery is common, with one in five patients reporting symptoms. The addition of radiation therapy with surgery further increases the likelihood of swelling developing.

Treatments That Work

Research shows that a combination of therapies works best to help reduce lymphedema. This combination of treatments is often called complete decongestive therapy (CDT).

Complete decongestive therapy treatments include:

  • Manual lymph drainage – a unique massage technique that jump-starts the pumping action of the lymphatic vessels to help reduce swelling and encourage drainage
  • Compression bandaging and sleeves – Using compression helps prevent fluid from building up and aides in pushing fluid into the lymphatic vessels
  • Specific exercises that help with lymphatic pumping and drainage
  • Education regarding how to care for your swollen skin

With treatment you should expect:

  • Decreased swelling
  • Improvements in skin condition
  • Improved fine motor skills
  • Increased range of motion
  • Reduced pain

Book your appointment now to get started with lymphedema therapy with one of our health professionals today.


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