How to Treat Frozen Shoulder in Breast Cancer Patients and Survivors

Breast cancer rehab involves helping patients and survivors who are experiencing frozen shoulder.  Both radiation and breast cancer surgery are known to increase the chances of suffering from frozen shoulder, and the likelihood varies with the type and extent of treatments.  

A study of 208 women found that following breast cancer surgery, 85% still had one or more arm problems six months later (  Frozen shoulder is not that common, of course (one study found a rate of 22%), but some kind of arm difficulty is almost guaranteed (PubMed).

What Is “Frozen Shoulder”?

Frozen shoulder is the common term for what physicians call “adhesive capsulitis”-- “the stiffening of the shoulder due to scar tissue, which results in painful movement and loss of motion”.  Range of motion can be significantly reduced, and limited by both stiffness and by pain.

Frozen shoulder does not have a single cause, but conditions like diabetes, hypothyroidism and other autoimmune diseases, and various heart or lung problems (PubMed) raise the risk level.  Of course, so does any injury to the chest or shoulder area.

Physical Therapy for Frozen Shoulder

Living with pain and stiffness after breast cancer treatments does not need to be your "new normal."  Thankfully there is hope!  A number of breast cancer rehab treatments are effective for frozen shoulder, at various points in the recovery process.  Your physical therapist will advise on what treatments are most effective at each phase.

Frozen shoulder treatments can include:

  • Range-of-motion exercises
  • Manual therapies such as massage
  • Heat and cold therapies
  • Gentle stretching and strengthening exercises
  • Anti-inflammatories (start with omega-3 fish oils and herbs such as turmeric; use prescription drugs only if necessary, as they carry risks and only mask symptoms)

How to Prevent Frozen Shoulder

Better than treatment, of course, is prevention.  Frozen shoulder might not appear for a year or more (see this patient’s story), and starting physical therapy immediately after–or even before–treatment, is the best way to prevent frozen shoulder (and lymphedema, scarring, shape & texture changes, and other related problems).  In many cases, these problems can be reduced or avoided altogether.

A well-designed physical therapy regimen will use a variety of techniques in harmony to accomplish these outcomes:

  • Relax and strengthen muscles
  • Mobilize tissue and prevent scar formation
  • Encourage flexibility
  • Lubricate the shoulder joint
  • Keep the lymph moving
  • Heal damaged tissues

Your therapist will also teach you the best movement patterns for your situation and your stage in the recovery process, and give you exercises to do at home.

How Long to Continue Physical Therapy for Frozen Shoulder

Cancer and its conventional treatments have long-reaching effects that will require permanent lifestyle modification on a number of fronts.  Our therapists can help you make a plan for long-term health. 

We recommend a physical therapy session about every three months for several years (yes, years) following the conclusion of cancer treatment.  Making stretch/strength/mobility exercises a part of your daily health routine is a wise plan for the indefinite future.  Your therapist will provide you with therapy exercises you can do on your own and will adjust your at-home regimen based on your in-clinic evaluation.

Whether you are experiencing symptoms of frozen shoulder, or are hoping to avoid it, please schedule a free 15-minute consultation with us to discuss your situation and how ORW can help.