Post Breast Surgery (Lumpectomy or Mastectomy) without Reconstruction

Sensations after Breast Surgery  |  Swelling  |  Arm Elevation Techniques  |  Lymphedema  |  Exercise  |  Exaggerated Deep Breathing  |  Exercise Guide

Our goal is to educate individuals about symptoms that are commonly experienced following reconstructive surgery and to explain safe positions, activities and exercises to aid in the healing process.

HHCRN Post Breast Surgery (Lumpectomy or Mastectomy) Without Reconstruction BannerSeveral recent reports suggest that staying active following cancer can help reduce fatigue, pain, and anxiety, as well improve self-esteem and energy levels.

Physical Therapy can help individuals to regain strength and mobility, adjust to new physical limitations, and find the safest ways to perform everyday activities. It is important to start an exercise program slowly and increase activity over time, according to your physician’s recommendations.

Sensations after Breast Surgery

After breast surgery, you may feel various sensations in the arm, breast, or chest wall. Most women experience a variety of sensations. They usually diminish within a few months after surgery. However, some sensations can take a longer time to diminish; nerves take the longest time to heal. Some degree of numbness and change of sensation may be permanent.

Do not use a hot water bottle, heating pad, or hot compress on your surgery sites as they could result in bad burns. Itching is a sensation that often accompanies healing. It will decrease over

The sensations that you may experience in the area of your surgery include:

Incisional Sensation
This is a pulling at the site of the incision when you move, such as in exercise or just lifting the arm. If you feel pulling or discomfort limit your movement to that point. It generally takes approximately 10 to 14 days for your incision site to heal. Your doctor will tell you when you are healed and then you can move your arm freely through all motions.

Referred Sensations
These sensations occur on the side of the surgery. They are feelings of heaviness, numbness, tingling, pins and needles, burning, or the feeling of water running down your arm or side. You may experience them in the front or back part of the arm, on the back of the shoulder, down your arm and/or in the rib cage on the side of surgery.

During surgery, small sensory fibers were disrupted, and it can take up to a year to heal completely. As the healing continues, these sensations will begin to disappear. These are a normal part of the healing process and if you feel them, you should continue to do whatever activity you are doing.

Phantom Sensation
When you experience the presence of the breast or portion of the breast that the surgeon removed. This is normal and it may last for a while after surgery. Some people never experience phantom sensation. If you find it bothersome, take a soft pillow and apply some gentle pressure with your hands over the area and this may help decrease phantom sensation.

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After your surgery, you may have some swelling or puffiness in your hand or arm on the side or your surgery. This is normal and will usually resolve itself. If you notice swelling in your hand or
arm, raise your arm above the level of your heart several times a day while you do hand pumps. Slowly open and close your fist 10 times.

If you are able to sleep on the opposite side of your surgery, you may place one or two pillows in front of you and rest your arm on those pillows. The elevation and pumping action of the muscles help gravity to drain the fluid out of the arm.

You may also find it helpful to elevate your arm a few times a day for about 20 minutes.

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Arm Elevation Techniques

  • While sitting or while lying on your back rest your arm on a few pillows next to you.
  • Your arm should be raised above the level of your heart.
  • Avoid holding your arm up for an extended period of time to reduce arm muscle fatigue.

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If you have had axillary lymph nodes removed, the way fluid circulates in your arm may have changed, and you are at risk for developing lymphedema. Lymphedema is an abnormal swelling
in your hand or arm on the side of your surgery. It can also occur as swelling in the breast or chest wall. A trained physical or occupational therapist can work to heal your lymphatic system
using hands-on techniques, therapeutic exercise and self-massage instruction.

Make sure to ask health care workers to insert IV’s, take blood pressure and draw blood from the unaffected arm. If both sides had lymph nodes removed, talk with your doctor about which arm would be safest to use.

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Regular exercise after your surgery and during expansion is good for you and important in your recovery. However until your doctor says they are okay, do not do:

  • High-impact Aerobics
  • Jog
  • Lift Weights
  • Swim

Do the simple exercises that your rehabilitation therapist teaches you. These exercises will help to increase your comfort/flexibility and the range of motion in your shoulder and arm. They do not require special equipment and can be done anywhere that you are comfortable. Your surgeon will tell you when you can actually begin the exercises.

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Exaggerated Deep Breathing

This type of breathing will help you with your exercises. Deep breathing helps to relieve tension, relaxes the body and ease discomfort around your incision.

  • Sit comfortably in a chair.
  • Take a slow deep breath through your nose.
  • Let your chest and belly expand, exhale slowly through your mouth.
  • Repeat.

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Exercise Guide

Your surgeon will discuss with you the importance of exercises after surgery, as well as the restrictions you may have regarding how high you can lift your arms.

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Hartford HealthCare Rehabilitation Network