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November 3, 2022
Author: Shelby
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  • Lymphedema and Restricted Shoulder Mobility as Potential Side Effects of Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer

Radiation therapy is a common local treatment for breast cancer. While its beneficial effects have been found in the treatment of breast cancer itself, the potential long-term side effects deserve discussion; particularly those relating to possible onset of lymphedema and restricted shoulder mobility.

Lymphedema and limited shoulder mobility, as a result of radiation therapy, can be very challenging to deal with if proper treatment is not initiated in a timely manner.

It is important to understand and acknowledge these possible side effects of radiation therapy, so that if they do present, treatment can begin immediately.

Lymphedema Secondary to Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy has the potential to disrupt the lymphatics in the area being treated, which commonly includes the affected breast, chest wall, and axillary lymph nodes.

Once damage has been done to the lymphatics, they are normally unable to re-grow or regenerate themselves. As a result, the lymphatics in the entire area treated are considered to be at a disadvantage.

While there can still be competent lymphatic vessels remaining after treatment, if the remaining vessels are unable to keep up with the normal workload in that area, then lymphedema may develop. This is a specific type of swelling that develops in the lymphatic vessels when the system in that area essentially becomes overwhelmed.

Lymphedema has the potential to develop in the treated arm, remaining breast tissue, and upper quadrant on the same side. If this occurs, the affected area typically becomes swollen, tight, heavy and can fatigue easily.

The above symptoms will naturally make it more challenging to use the arm. This makes it difficult to bend the arm, raise the arm overhead, or pick up objects.

The only effective treatment for lymphedema is Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT). This involves manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), skin care, use of appropriate compression garments, and decongestive exercises.[1]

Restricted Shoulder Mobility Secondary to Radiation Therapy

While lymphedema is a potential side effect of radiation therapy, there are instances when restricted shoulder mobility can occur due to radiation alone, without the presence of lymphedema.

Radiation often causes abnormal changes to the skin, including development of firmness or fibrosis. This leads to tightened skin in the affected area, which can create pain when attempting to use the ipsilateral, or same side, arm. With this, any overhead motion or reaching away from the body will cause pain.

Another possible effect from radiation therapy is brachial plexopathy. This occurs from damage and injury to the complex of nerves that innervate the upper extremity. This can cause pain, impaired sensation, and/or abnormal functional use of the entire shoulder girdle.[2]

Commonly affected muscles negatively impacted from radiation may include the pectoralis group, latissimus dorsi, teres major, and possibly the rotator cuff muscles and trapezius. The extent of damage depends on the dosage and total amount of radiation treatments.[3]

Physical or occupational therapy can help address these challenges post-radiation therapy. While rehab is not able to completely reverse the effects of radiation, it can very much help with pain management and restoring functional use of the affected limb.


1. Shapiro, M.D. CL, Recht, M.D. A. Side Effects of Adjuvant Treatment of Breast Cancer. Wood, M.D. AJJ, ed. N Engl J Med 2001; 344:1997-2008. doi: 10.1056/NEJM200106283442607. Accessed September 29, 2022.

2. Senkus-Konefka E, Jassem J. Complications of Breast-cancer Radiotherapy. Clinical Oncology. 2006;18(3):229-235. doi:10.1016/j.clon.2005.11.004. Accessed September 29, 2022.

3. Lipps DB, Sachdev S, Strauss JB. Quantifying radiation dose delivered to individual shoulder muscles during breast radiotherapy. Radiotherapy and Oncology. 2017;122(3):431-436. doi:10.1016/j.radonc.2016.12.032.

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About the Author Shelby

Shelby Green is a Florida-licensed Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), currently practicing at St. Anthony’s Resource Center Outpatient Rehabilitation in St. Petersburg, FL. Shelby received her Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of South Florida, followed by her DPT from the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences. Shelby has 6 years clinical experience practicing in both the acute care and outpatient rehab settings. Specialties include orthopedics, with additional training in specific manual therapy techniques for pain management, as well as extensive training as a Certified Lymphedema Therapist.

Shelby is a Tampa, FL native, which is where she and her husband currently reside. Their favorite activities include spending time with family and anything outdoors, such as walking, bike riding, and going to the beach.

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This website is intended to provide educational information only and should not be taken as medical advice. The information shared on this website is based on research, but is not intended to replace the advice of a healthcare professional. We recommend that you consult your healthcare provider for any specific questions or concerns you may have. The website does not accept responsibility for any harm that may occur from using the information given on this site. Speak to your medical provider about any health issues!

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