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Exercise reduces arm and shoulder problems after breast cancer surgery



Breast cancer treatment often results in shoulder and arm problems, such as chronic pain, restricted shoulder movement, or lymphedema in the armpit area, limiting quality of life and delaying recovery. However, according to a U.K. study published by The BMJ on Nov. 10, women who exercised shortly after having nonreconstructive breast cancer surgery experienced less pain and regained better shoulder and arm mobility at 1 year than those who did not exercise.

“Hospitals should consider training physiotherapists in the PROSPER program to offer this structured, prescribed exercise program to women undergoing axillary clearance surgery and those having radiotherapy to the axilla,” said lead author Julie Bruce, PhD, a specialist in surgical epidemiology with the University of Warwick, Coventry, England.

Up to one-third of women experience adverse effects to their lymphatic and musculoskeletal systems after breast cancer surgery and radiotherapy targeting the axilla. A study of 2,411 women in Denmark found that pain remained for up to 7 years after breast cancer treatment. U.K. guidelines for the management of breast cancer recommend referral to physical therapy if such problems develop, but the best timing and intensity along with the safety of postoperative exercise remain uncertain. A review of the literature in 2019 found a lack of adequate evidence to support the use of postoperative exercise after breast cancer surgery. Moreover, concerns with such exercise have been reported, such as increased risks of postoperative wound complications and lymphedema.

“The study was conducted to address uncertainty whether early postoperative exercise after women at high risk of shoulder and arm problems after nonreconstructive surgery was safe, clinically, and cost-effective. Previous studies were small, and no large high-quality randomized controlled trials had been undertaken with this patient population in the U.K.,” Dr. Bruce said.

In UK PROSPER, a multicenter, randomized controlled trial, researchers investigated the effects of an exercise program compared with usual care for 392 women (mean age 58) undergoing breast cancer surgery at 17 National Health Service (NHS) cancer centers. The women were randomly assigned to usual care with structured exercise or usual care alone. Structured exercise, introduced 7-10 days postoperatively, consisted of a physical therapy–led exercise program comprising stretching, strengthening, and physical activity, along with behavioral change techniques to support exercise adherence. Two further appointments were offered 1 and 3 months later. Outcomes included upper limb function, as measured by the Disability of Arm, Hand, and Shoulder (DASH) questionnaire at 12 months, complications, health related quality of life, and cost effectiveness.

At 12 months, women in the exercise group showed improved upper limb function compared with those who received usual care (mean DASH 16.3 for exercise, 23.7 for usual care; adjusted mean difference 7.81, 95% confidence interval, 3.17-12.44; P = .001). Compared with the usual care group, women in the exercise group reported lower pain intensity, fewer arm disability symptoms, and better health related quality of life.

“We found that arm function, measured using the DASH scale, improved over time and found surprisingly, these differences between treatment groups persisted at 12 months,” Dr. Bruce said. “There was no increased risk of neuropathic pain or lymphedema, so we concluded that the structured exercise program introduced from the seventh postoperative day was safe. Strengthening exercises were introduced from 1 month postoperatively.”

While the authors noted that the study was limited as participants and physical therapists knew which treatment they were receiving, they stressed that the study included a larger sample size than that of previous trials, along with a long follow-up period.

“We know that some women develop late lymphedema. Our findings are based on follow-up at 12 months. We hope to undertake longer-term follow up of our patient sample in the future,” Dr. Bruce said.

The authors declared support from the UK National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Technology Assessment Programme.