Before beginning any exercise program, please check with your physician or physical therapist! Not all exercises or stretches are appropriate for everyone – please read my full medical disclaimer here before trying any of the exercises listed below.
After both breast-conserving surgeries and mastectomies, people often find they have difficulty reaching overhead or behind their back, washing or fixing their hair, or feeling tightness throughout the chest wall. The following stretches are helpful to improve range of motion and help you restore your ability to complete your usual daily tasks!
These stretches should be done after a sufficient amount of time has passed post-operatively so all incisions in the breast, chest, or axilla (armpit) have healed. Be sure that any incisions are well-healed before attempting these stretches without guidance from a healthcare professional. Normal soft tissue healing of the skin and underlying tissues takes about 4-6 weeks. Stretching might be uncomfortable as you push into tight areas, but you should not typically experience pain >5/10 while performing stretches.
Watch the video for a full demonstration:
In a kneeling, or seated position, slide the hands forward until you feel a stretch in the shoulder or axilla. Perform gentle repeated stretches (10-15 repetitions) or hold for longer durations (30-60 seconds) as tolerated.
Modifications: For greater stretch of the side body, walk the hands to the left or right.
Begin on hands and knees in a neutral spine position with hips stacked over knees and shoulders stacked over the wrists. Inhale and slowly drop the belly to arch the back, lifting the breast bone. The, exhale and round the back from the tailbone to the neck, broadening the space between the shoulder blades. Alternate moving into each position for 5-10 repetitions.
Modifications: Perform in a seated position, reaching forward as you round the back, and allowing the arms to reach behind you as you lift the chest.
In a seated or standing position, grasp your affected arm with the opposite hand and gently lean away to stretch the shoulder and side body. Breathe deeply into the ribs on the affected side. Hold 30-60 seconds as tolerated.
Modifications: Lie on the unaffected side over a pillow or foam roller and gently stretch the affected arm overhead, limit the range of motion as tolerated.
Lie on your back and allow one or both elbows to fall out to the side. For mastectomy patients, perform only one side at a time until cleared by your physician to perform both sides together. Do not allow the back to arch away from the floor or bed. Hold for 30-60 seconds as tolerated.
Modifications: place pillow/s or a yoga block under the elbow to allow tight shoulders/chest walls to relax during the stretch. This stretch can also be performed standing with forearms placed against a doorframe.
Open Book Stretch
Begin lying on the unaffected side with knees bent to 90 degrees to protect the low back. Place the affected arm behind the head and allow the body to rotate and open up the front of the affected shoulder/chest. Breathe in as you open and exhale to return to the starting position. Repeat 5-10 times.
Modifications: Straighten the affected arm for a greater stretch or circle the arm over the head to stretch in various angles.
All stretches are designed to be gentle, but can be progressed if they become too easy or maintained if full range of motion is achieved. Stretches can be performed 1-3 times per day as needed.