Gaining Upper Extremity Mobility Following Breast Cancer Surgery

I work with a lot of women following breast cancer surgery, ranging from lumpectomies to bilateral mastectomies. As a certified lymphedema therapist, part of what I help these women with is prevention of lymphedema, which I wrote about in a previous blog post here. Although prevention of lymphedema is a focus following surgery, helping with mobility, posture, wound care, management of fatigue, and promoting tolerance for functional use of their arms/trunk is a huge part of recovery. I love working with women following breast cancer surgery. I like being able to help women in a chaotic time, see their progression, and see them thrive following this major life event.

One of the main types of exercise I encourage women to participate in following breast cancer surgery is yoga (obviously). Doing yoga for 30 minutes/day for three weeks following breast cancer surgery has been shown to result in decreased hospital length of stay and improved wound healing (including faster drain and suture removal) in comparison to a control group who completed post-op rehabilitation exercises1. In this study, yoga completed by participants emphasized stress reduction and increasing mobility of the shoulder. Obviously wound care is an important step to address in regards to increasing mobility. Delayed healing can lead to infections, greater scar tissue adhesions, and increased time spent with post-op drains in place. Addressing wounds is a non-negotiable priority in post-operative care. 

I encourage mobility as soon as cleared by your surgeon. While any type of movement should be gentle while wounds are healing, generally women can really start to focus on gaining mobility after their wounds have closed and sutures are removed. During this time of focus, I usually encourage longer holds (30 seconds-2 minutes) in pain-free range for my clients during yoga. Using this approach consistently results in improved upper extremity and trunk mobility, along with comfort during functional movements. Though as always, I highly encourage you to seek the assistance of a trained healthcare professional who can personalize your treatment. 

Although research shows that yoga is beneficial for individuals following breast cancer surgery, my search didn’t find any scientifically proven pose(s) that was found to be more beneficial than others. While you can’t say a certain pose works for 100% of individuals, there are a few poses that I find helpful for my clients the large majority of the time.

My favorite poses post-breast cancer surgery

Warrior 1 Pose: It is common for women to feel tightness throughout their chest following great surgery. Warrior 1 helps open up the chest while promoting scapular retraction. It also addresses balance which is commonly impaired due to side-effects of surgery or other cancer treatments (e.g. chemotherapy). Bonus- people generally feel pretty empowered while striking the warrior poses which is a major benefit after a traumatic surgery! 

Puppy Pose: This pose helps reduce tightness in your neck, spine, shoulders, and arms to help promote range of motion for functional movements. As you advance in this pose, try adding blocks under your arms to increase range in your shoulders even more. 

Reclined Cobbler Pose: This pose is great for using the ground as a cue to try to get your shoulder blades flat on the ground. Once someone is able to do this, I love advancing this pose by either placing your hands behind your head and pressing your elbows away OR placing a block on your upper back to promote additional scapular retraction/chest opening.

Breathe. Okay you caught me. This is not a posture. However, utilizing breathing techniques is great for stimulation of the lymphatic system which assists with reduction of post-operative edema and prevention of lymphedema.  Check out my blog post on various breathing techniques here.

As always, thank you for reading my blog! Comment below if you have other things you would like me to write about ♥


1. Rao, R.M., Nagendra, H.R., Raghuram, N., Vinay, C., Chandrashekara, S., Gopinath, K.S., & Srinath, B.S. (2008) Influence of yoga on postoperative outcomes and wound healing in early operable breast cancer patients undergoing surgery. International Journal of Yoga, 1(1), 33-41.


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