Physical Therapy and Lymphedema Care: After a Mastectomy

At the Tucson Orthopaedic Institute, we understand the need to heal after a major surgery. Our dedicated physical therapists have the compassion, training, and skills to help you move past pain while increasing function and range of motion. Physical therapy is a part of healing, but it is especially important to women who are undergoing physical therapy and lymphedema

(swelling) care after a mastectomy. Lymphedema (swelling of the arm) is a common side effect after a mastectomy.

Why is Lymphedema and How Does Physical Therapy Help?


Lymph glands, which normally transports lymph, a vital fluid containing white blood cells and other infection fighting components, are often taken out during a mastectomy in order to remove cancerous tissues. This can cause a condition known as secondary lymphedema, in which excess fluid collects beneath the skin. Without the ability to drain, excess fluid can build up (edema), causing swelling of the affected area.


The excessive collection of fluid can prevent proper blood flow and oxygenation and make a person susceptible to certain kinds of infection in the swollen areas. Following a mastectomy, physical therapy can help to drain the tissues because exercise and movement, along with compression and targeted massage, aids in the removal of excess fluid, toxins, and waste. Lymphedema can range from mild to severe, depending on the number of lymph nodes that have been removed or damaged. Symptoms of lymphedema can include:


·      Tightness, heaviness or feelings of fullness in the affected chest, armpit, arm area

·      Aching or pain in the affected limb

·      Swelling of the hand(s)

·      Difficulty bending the affected limb due to swelling

·      Arm weakness

·      Inability to fit into clothing such as bras, blouses and jewelry that were previously wearable


The treatment for lymphedema often includes physical therapy, exercise, and massage therapy. It may also require compression bandages to prevent fluid buildup, diet and weight management, and elevation of the affected arm. It is also very important that you keep the skin healthy by preventing it from drying out or cracking. This can lead to serious infections because the bacteria can often thrive in the areas where lymph glands have been removed.


Your doctor and physical therapist can advise you further as to which diet, exercise, medications and therapies are right for you. If you, or someone you love needs exceptional after care following a mastectomy, or any form of orthopedic care, or to learn more about our Ortho Fast Track program, please call us in East Tucson at (520) 784-6200Northwest Tucson at (520) 382-8200, or Oro Valley at (520) 544-9700, or request an appointment online.