Scar Treatments for Cancer Patients

Many cancer patients have scar tissue from surgery. Radiation treatments can also result in pain and limited mobility. Some survivors are embarrassed by the scarring—the fibrosis and adhesions that may develop do not have the smooth appearance of the surrounding skin.

Our physical therapists can treat scars using manual therapy, manual-assist tools, LymphaTouch®, active release therapy, low level laser therapy, and other methods. All of these work to reduce pain and swelling, extend range of motion, and prevent scar tissue build-up

Learn more about what options are available at Oncology Rehab and Wellness during a 15-minute consultation with us.

Physical Therapy for Scar Tissue

What causes scar tissue?

When you undergo a surgical procedure, injure yourself, or cut any tissue, your body’s inflammatory system will take over to begin the healing process. This process involves creating new cells to replace the ones that were damaged. Some of the new cells that are created are formed with collagen.

Under normal circumstances, this would promote strength within those tissues. However, when the body undergoes trauma—such as surgery, skin wound, or significant injury—those collagen cells can clump together in an abnormal way, forming scar tissue. Scar tissue has a different composition from “normal” connective tissue. It can harden, shrink, and interfere with normal mobility.

This can cause pain, limited range of motion, and unsightly marks on the skin. The good news is that scar tissue can be ​modified in a variety of ways, using skilled physical therapy to reduce or eliminate the ​tissue restriction. It can also ​even out a cosmetic imperfection that may be caused by underlying tissue.

How can physical therapy help with scar tissue from cancer treatments?

An excessive amount of scar tissue can directly affect your muscles and joints by reducing your range of motion in those areas. 

This is where physical therapy can have a huge impact. 

At Oncology Rehab and Wellness, our therapists treat scar tissue in cancer patients.

  • Directly treat your scars using manual techniques or other advanced treatments.
  • Teach you self-massage or home treatment when applicable.
  • Develop a plan that includes specific exercises designed to stretch and/or strengthen scar tissue, muscles, and joints so that you can move more freely and without pain.

How will my physical therapist diagnose scar tissue problems?

Your physical therapist will:

  • Take a medical history that covers your symptoms, as well as the initial injury or surgery that caused the scarring.
  • Closely examine the scar tissue to determine the best options for treatment.
  • Have you perform certain movements to determine how your strength and range of motion are impacted.
  • Assess pain of scar tissue or fibrosis.

It is important to note that your scar must be fully healed before you begin any type of scar massage therapy. If you begin too soon you could cause the wound to reopen or tear, which could cause pain or lead to an infection.

What treatment methods will my physical therapist use?

Methods of scar tissue treatment used at Oncology Rehab and Wellness include:

  • Manual therapy/scar tissue mobilization: your therapist is trained in manually manipulating scar tissue to reduce pain and mobility limitations.
  • Manual Assist Tools: your physical therapist may use stainless steel or other tools to help break up the scar tissue and restore mobility. With the pressure of the tools used in these techniques, mechanical changes at the cellular level can and do occur in order to normalize scar tissue as much as possible.
  • LymphaTouch® Treatment: LymphaTouch® is a medical device designed to relieve swelling and pain in primary and secondary lymphedema, treatment of scar tissue after surgery, trauma, or injury. This device works to decrease tissue fibrosis (hardening), myofascial tightness, and scar tissue formation, relieving pain and reducing range of motion restrictions.
  • Active Release Therapy: Manual tension is applied for a short time with a therapist’s fingers while the patient actively works to stretch and lengthen the muscle/scar tissue.
  • Stretching: Stretching exercises will most often be added by your physical therapist to increase flexibility and aid in mobilization of scar tissue and assist in pain relief. Your therapist will create a personalized ​manual therapy, exercise, and stretching routine that you can do at home.
  • Low Level Laser Therapy: has shown to help reduce scar tissue, inflammation, adhesions, and pain. It also will create more cell activity and accelerated tissue regeneration to increase the speed of recovery in most cases.
  • Taping (Kinesiotape) may be applied to your scar area and could minimize the pain associated with scar tissue adhesions. Physical therapists can guide you in the correct technique and type of therapeutic tape to use. It is important to seek out medical advice as to when this is a safe method of treatment.
  • Silicone sheets or strips may be recommended by your plastic surgeon or physical therapist to aid in healing of scar tissue.

Is it possible to eliminate scar tissue from cancer treatments?

Under the right conditions, scar massage, manual therapy techniques, and treatment modalities can have a significant impact on scar tissue release. 

Treatment of scar tissue will be most effective in the first two years, while the scar is still forming. During this timeframe, you may notice significant benefits from treating scar tissue. However, scars that are beyond this timeframe can also improve with appropriate treatment.

Physical therapy treatment for scars can provide:

  • Improved blood flow to promote scar healing progression.
  • Decreased pain from scar tissue and fibrosis.
  • Increased range of motion, making the scarred area feel less tight.
  • Reduced swelling (through draining excess fluid).
  • Less scar tissue build-up, which can reduce muscle stiffness and weakness.
  • Reduced sensation of numbness and tingling.

What is fat necrosis?

Fat necrosis is a complication when an area of fatty tissue is damaged and forms into a firm lump. It can be a complication following breast reconstruction using autologous tissue (a flap of your own tissue), breast reduction, fat grafting, radiation, or trauma.

This kind of fatty lump can be as small as a pea or can take over a large portion of the breast. The lump is not usually painful, however it can cause discomfort as the tissue can be quite hard. It may also alter the look of the breast, which can be discouraging to patients.

Various types of massage techniques can help to reduce the size, improve the feel of the fat necrosis, and improve aesthetics. This lump is treated like scar tissue and requires firm pressure and moving the tissue in multiple directions.

Can physical therapy get rid of the fat necrosis?

If you have been diagnosed with fat necrosis and are seeking treatment, physical therapy can help, using many of the same interventions as noted above.

The results vary for everyone and often depend on how large the necrosis was to start with. Results also depend on whether or not the tissue has been radiated. Radiated skin is more difficult to treat, as the skin is permanently changed post-radiation and tends to feel more firm in general.

However, even with irradiated skin, there is the potential for improvements in overall tissue health.

Find Out More About Our Scar Tissue Treatments for Cancer Patients

Want to learn more about your scar tissue treatment options? Contact us at Oncology Rehab and Wellness.

A physical therapist can discuss your treatment options in detail and craft a treatment plan to address your scar tissue with your specific needs in mind.