Breast Reconstruction May Change the Way Patients Move Their Arms and Shoulders

When breast cancer patients have their breasts removed, many opt for reconstruction. There are side effects that can pop up later on, including changes in breast sensation or problems at the donor site. A new study finds another issue may be common, and the researchers hope their findings impact how post-reconstruction rehab is handled.

A team from the University of Saskatchewan recently examined the movement of women who had undergone reconstruction, versus those who had opted for just a mastectomy and those who had undergone neither. According to findings published in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, upper limb movement was markedly different for those who had opted for reconstruction.


Dr. Angelica Lang, lead author and assistant professor at USask’s Canadian Centre for Health and Safety in Agriculture, explains, “These alterations are related to reduced functional abilities such as reaching and lifting, and potentially to the development of future shoulder injuries. It is important to understand these changes in order to restore shoulder function after breast cancer surgery.”

To determine how the surgery may impact movement, the team enrolled 95 study participants, 25 of whom had only undergone a mastectomy, 45 of whom had received one of three types of reconstruction, and 25 who served as a control. Reflective markers were placed on their torso and arms and their movements were tracked by specialized equipment.


While the participants performed a series of tasks, the researchers found that those in the reconstruction group used their shoulder and arm muscles differently than the other two groups. They also had lower upper limb functionality scores on several tests. The researchers say they believe this is because the patients’ body motion changed after their surgeries and that may have impacted functionality and created instability in the shoulder.

The team hopes the findings change the way post-reconstruction rehabilitation is approached.

Dr. Lang explains, “We hope that this research will help to improve quality of life for breast cancer survivors. By identifying and acknowledging the challenges they face after surgery, we hope that steps can be made to better rehabilitate their shoulder function.”


There is also hope that these findings could help stave off future shoulder injuries in these patients.

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