Scar tissue, swelling problems for cancer survivors

Therapy helps with swelling, scar tissue

Special to the Herald-LeaderJuly 2, 2012 

Clair for Central Baptist Health


Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers among American women. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 289,000 U.S. women will be diagnosed in 2012. Unfortunately, many of the 2.6 million survivors experience long-term side effects of swelling, pain, thickened scar tissue and decreased flexibility after treatment.

Swelling can occur in the upper limbs and chest following removal of lymph nodes, trauma to the lymph vessels through radiation, or infection. This swelling, known as lymphedema, is the result of protein accumulating in the tissues. Those with lymphedema might experience decreased flexibility in the hand, wrist or elbow, or their clothes, rings or watches could become tight on one arm. It's important to recognize these symptoms and seek medical advice as soon as possible because early diagnosis and treatment improve the condition.

Treatment of lymphedema is called complete decongestive therapy, and it involves manual lymph drainage, compression bandaging and garments (sleeves and/or glove), skin and nail care, therapeutic exercises, infection education and self treatment.

Referral to a certified lymphedema therapist for an individualized program is essential to treat the lymphedema appropriately.

Scar tissue can develop and tighten in the incision area after breast cancer surgery, and the area might become hypersensitive. This hypersensitivity frequently occurs at the incision and drain site, and can make wearing a bra or clothing painful.

ASTYM treatment is a non-invasive soft tissue therapy using handheld tools to apply force to the tissue. The therapy "remodels" the tissue and provides a desensitizing effect. ASTYM treatment also may be used on other soft-tissue problems, such as shoulder tendonitis and elbow epicondylitis. Recognizing signs of pain and hypersensitivity and contacting an ASTYM- certified provider are important to help decrease long-term symptoms.

Participating in physical activity and an individualized exercise program improves range of motion in the shoulder and stretches scar tissue. Movement of the joints and muscles helps increase the lymph flow to move the lymph fluid. Exercise also improves the feeling of well-being, contributes to increased energy levels and helps maintain a healthy weight.

The key to treatment of lymphedema and scar tissue is early referral to a physical therapist specially trained to address the individual's needs and help minimize pain, swelling and further formation of scar tissue.

Claire Davies is a physical therapist with Central Baptist Hospital Outpatient Therapy Services.

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