As lymphedema improves and becomes more stable, it is important to begin rehabbing shoulder function.
A physical therapist or occupational therapist are common referral sources for treating shoulder dysfunction. It is an even better combination if you can work with a physical or occupational therapist, who is also a Certified Lymphedema Therapist (CLT).
The process of rehabbing the shoulder will depend on what specific impairments present during an initial evaluation. The evaluation will assess shoulder range of motion, strength, painful locations, and any movement abnormalities in the shoulder girdle.
Treatment usually will involve exercise, manual therapy and modalities for functional progression and pain management. A home exercise program is also prescribed, which will assist in progression while in therapy as well as continue progression and maintenance of results once discharged from therapy.
While it's important to gradually progress muscle function, it's also necessary to avoid overuse or straining of the limb. This not only can slow progress and recovery but also have a negative effect on the lymphedema from adding an unnecessary additional workload to the lymphatic system in that area. Your therapist will help guide you with the appropriate exercise progression.
Breast cancer-related lymphedema (BCRL) and the effects on shoulder mobility and function are very treatable. As with any condition or mobility issue, the sooner treatment is implemented, the better the results will be.
If you have received or are receiving treatment for breast cancer and are considered to have a higher risk for development of lymphedema and shoulder dysfunction, do not hesitate to speak with your oncology team about a referral to a lymphedema and rehab specialist.