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After breast surgery, lymph node removal, or breast radiation, you will need to do some arm exercises to help you recover. Just doing some simple arm exercises helps you reduce the side effects of treatment, and get you back to normal activities. Be sure to discuss your exercise plans with your doctor — before you start.

Precautions for Arm Exercises After Breast Surgery

If you have surgical drains, wait until those are out, to start exercising. If you have sutures in place, don’t strain them. Do not do any of the exercises to the point of pain.

Dress for comfort, so you can move as easily as possible. Set up an area for your exercises — a carpeted floor, or an area where you can lay on an exercise mat or folded quilt.

Warm your surgery-side shoulder and arm before starting to exercise — take a shower, tub soak, or use a warm compress for about 20 minutes. Move slowly and gently while exercising, getting a good stretch, but not a jolt of pain.

Do your exercises two times a day. Repeat each exercise 5 to 7 times, doing it as correctly as you can. You might like to play some slow, soothing music while you stretch. Be regular about doing your arm exercises. This will speed your recovery and give you the best results.

What You Need

  • An area big enough to lay down on
  • A length of undecorated wall, taller than you can reach
  • A corner of a room, or an open doorway
  • A bath towel
  • A wand, broom handle, or cane (optional)
  • A hard chair with a back that can support your shoulders

Ready? Let’s start with some Floor Exercises.

Wand Lift Floor Exercise for Both Arms

Wand Lift for Arm Exercises
 Wand lift for arm exercises after breast surgery. Pam Stephan

After breast surgery, your surgery-side shoulder may feel stiff, so arm exercises are an important way to increase your flexibility and extend your range of motion. You can use a household object for a wand: a cane, broom handle, yardstick, wooden dowel or an exercise cane. Your wand should be wider than your shoulders and thick enough to grasp easily.

Wand Lift Exercise

Get your exercise wand and prepare for the wand lift by choosing an area on which to lie down.

  • Lie down on your back, keeping your back and neck in a straight line.
  • To help keep your lower back flat, elevate your knees (see illustrations).
  • Your feet should be flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart. Don’t keep your knees together — like your feet, they should be spaced apart.
  • Your upper arms will be on the floor by your rib cage, and your hand will grasp the wand as it lays in your lap.
  • Your hands should be shoulder’s width apart during this exercise. This allows your arms to help each other lift the wand and rotate your shoulders.

1. Hold the wand in both hands and straighten your arms. If you like, lock your elbows, but don’t tense up. Keep your shoulder blades flat on the floor.

2. With both arms straight, raise the wand over your head. Raise the wand as far as you can without causing pain. Use your unaffected arm to help your surgery-side arm. Keep arms parallel — don’t twist the wand over your head. Hold the wand in this position for 5 seconds as your muscles stretch.

3. Lower your arms to Position 1, and rest a bit.

4. Repeat this exercise 5 to 7 times.

Don’t worry if you can’t lift the cane all the way up — just do as well as you can. Gradually increase your stretching, so you may become more flexible. Try not to move your shoulder blades during this exercise —just concentrate on your shoulder motion.

Elbow Winging Floor Exercise

Elbow Winging Exercise
 Elbow wing exercise. Pam Stephan

Here’s a good way to increase the movement in your upper chest and shoulder — elbow winging. This is one of many arm exercises you can do after breast surgery. Elbow winging helps with your shoulder rotation and upper chest muscle flexibility.

Elbow Winging Exercise

Do this exercise while lying on your floor or bed. This will help hold your shoulder blades still while your shoulder joint rotates. Lie down with your knees raised and your hands clasped behind your neck. Keep your back and neck in a straight line.

  1. Begin with your hands clasped behind your neck and your elbows pointing at the ceiling.
  2. Keeping your hands clasped and your head still, push your elbows apart and down for a good stretch. Hold this position for 3 to 5 seconds.

Repeat this exercise 5 to 7 times. Don’t worry if you can’t lower your elbows all the way down to the floor — just do as well as you can. Gradually increase your stretching, to get your shoulder joint moving again. Keep your shoulder blades still during this exercise — just concentrate on your elbow and shoulder motion.

Chest Stretch Floor Exercise

Chest Stretch
 Chest stretch. Pam Stephan

Doing the chest stretch can be very relaxing. You can do this exercise while lying down on the floor or on your bed. The chest stretch helps increase the flexibility of your chest wall muscles, which can feel tight and stiff after breast surgery.

Chest Stretch Exercise

Prepare for this exercise by laying down on the floor or on your bed. If you use your bed for this exercise, get your shoulder as close to the edge of the bad as you can. This gives you the greatest range of motion. Your knees may be up, as in the Wand Lift exercise, or you can keep your legs stretched out flat.

  1. Raise your surgery-side arm up, until it is perpendicular to your body.
  2. Slowly and carefully lower your arm down and to the side. Feel a gentle stretch in your chest wall muscles. Stop lowering your arm if the stretch is painful — do not do this exercise to the point of pain. Hold this position for about 30 seconds.

Repeat this exercise 3 to 5 times. Don’t use any weights in your hand to assist the stretch. If you are very stiff after surgery, it may take quite some time to regain flexibility in your chest area. Give yourself time, remembering to move gently.

Shoulder Blade Squeeze Seated Exercise

Shoulder Blade Squeeze Exercise
 Shoulder blade squeeze exercise. Pam Stephan

This shoulder blade squeeze exercise is good for your shoulder joint and scapula. You can do this exercise in a standing or seated position. This is one of many arm exercises you can do after breast surgery, to increase your flexibility. Here’s how to do the shoulder blade squeeze exercise.

Shoulder Blade Squeeze Exercise

Do this exercise while seated on a stool, the edge of a chair, or on the edge of your bed. You need enough space behind you to rest your hands and rotate your elbows. Sit up straight, keeping your spine and neck in a straight line.

  1. Begin by putting your hands together behind your back. Keep your shoulders and arms relaxed. Look straight ahead.
  2. Keeping your hands together, pull both shoulders down and back while rotating your elbows inward. You should be able to feel your shoulder blades moving toward your spine. Hold this position for 3 to 5 seconds, to get a stretch. Your chest will widen out in front.

Repeat this exercise 5 to 7 times. If you can’t move both shoulders and arms symmetrically yet, don’t worry — just do what you can. Try to increase your stretching time as you feel able, to get your shoulder blades moving again.

Side Stretches Seated Exercise

Side Bends
 Side bends. Pam Stephan

Stretching gently to your side is a good way to start recovering from breast surgery. Side stretches can be done in a seated position. These will help with trunk, shoulder, and arm flexibility.

Side Stretches Exercise

Do these side stretches gently and slowly. Do your best to keep your hands help up over your head while bending — avoid pulling forward. This will stretch your chest wall muscles, trunk, spine, neck, shoulders, and arms.

  1. Sit in a hard chair with you back and neck straight, and your hands clasped in your lap. You can keep your knees together (as shown) or space your knees and feet about a shoulder’s width apart.
  2. With your hands still clasped together, raise both arms over your head to a comfortable point. You don’t have to straighten your arms, but see how high you can lift your hands to get a good stretch. Stop if you feel pain.
  3. Keeping your arms overhead and your feet on the floor, bend at the waist and feel a good stretch along your arms and sides. Hold this for about 3 seconds.
  4. Return to Position 2.
  5. Bend in the opposite direction and stretch, holding this pose for about 3 seconds.

Repeat side stretches 5 to 7 times.

Wall Climbing Standing Exercise

Wall Walking Exercise
 Wall walking exercise. Pam Stephan

You can do wall walking (or wall climbing) several ways, exercising one or both arms at a time. The different angles work your rotator cuff muscles in different directions, increasing your range of motion.

Climbing the Front Wall Facing the Wall

  • Stand facing the wall, with your toes about 8 or 10 inches away from the baseboard. Place your hands on the wall at about eye level. This is your starting position.
  • Walk your fingers up the wall, climbing as high as you can. Feel your shoulder joint and arm muscles working together. Walk your hands straight up the wall, without going off at an angle. Move your body toward the wall, if you are able to reach up that high. Hold your hands at the highest point you can manage for about 15 seconds.
  • Relax your arms and let them slide down to your starting position.

Repeat the Front Wall Climb 3 to 5 times. Your goal is to be able to raise your arms overhead as far as possible.

Climbing the Side Wall 

  • Stand with your surgery side to the wall, with your heel about 8 or 10 inches away from the baseboard. Place one hand on the wall at about eye level. Move this hand about two hand widths forward (or at a 30-degree angle from your body). This is your starting position.
  • Now walk your fingers up the wall, climbing as high as you can. Feel your shoulder joint rotating and your upper arm muscles stretching. Walk your hand up the wall, straightening your elbow as you go. Move your body toward the wall, if you are able to reach higher. Hold your hand as high as you can manage for about 15 seconds.
  • Relax your arm and resume your starting position.

Repeat the Side Wall Climb 3 to 5 times with each arm. This helps work your shoulder joint and upper arm muscles for greater flexibility.

Corner Push-Ups Standing Exercise

Corner Stretches
 Corner stretches. Pam Stephan

Corner push-ups are a great way to stretch your pectoral muscles — major muscles that cross your chest. All you need is a corner of a room and some time to do your corner push-ups. Stretching your pectoral muscles helps you recover from breast surgery.

Corner Push-Ups Exercise

After breast or shoulder surgery, your chest muscles may feel tight and rigid. One way to get those muscles moving again is by doing some corner push-ups. If you don’t have a corner of a room with enough clear wall and floor space to use, find an open doorway to use instead. The idea is to use your body’s own weight to passively exercise those chest muscles.

  1. Walk up to a corner of a room and rest both forearms on the wall, having your upper arms level with the floor. While standing up straight, take about half a step backward. This will be your starting position.
  2. With your back straight, and keeping your forearms and feet still, lean gently into the corner until you feel a good stretch. You should feel your shoulder blades moving in towards your spine. Hold this position for about 30 seconds, then gently return to Position 1.

Repeat this exercise three times, then take a rest break. Be sure not to bend your spine or scoot your arms along the wall while doing the corner push-ups. If you can’t lean into the corner very far, that’s OK — just do what you can. Move gently and smoothly. Stop if you feel pain. Over time, you will be able to do the corner push-ups correctly.

Towel Stretch Standing Exercise

Towel Stretch Exercise
 Towel stretch exercise. Pam Stephan

To get your shoulder moving again after breast surgery, try this towel stretch — it works your shoulder joint for internal rotation. Doing the towel stretch twice a day will improve your shoulder flexibility and range of motion.

Towel Stretch Exercise

For the towel stretch, you’ll need a long soft bath towel. During this exercise, you will use one arm to passively exercise the other. Do not bend forward, twist your body, or stretch to the point of pain as you do the towel stretch. Your goal is to loosen up your affected shoulder so that you can reach the middle of your upper back.

  1. Stand up straight with the towel draped across your right shoulder. Hold the front of the towel in your right hand, and the back of the towel in your left hand, behind your back. You’re now in your starting position.
  2. Use your right hand to gently pull down on the towel. This will stretch your left arm and cause your left shoulder to rotate. When you feel your left arm stretching, hold that position for about 30 seconds and then relax.

Do the towel stretch three times, then switch arms. Stretch your other arm 3 times. Do the towel stretch twice a day. If you don’t see improvement right away, don’t worry — shoulder rotation can take several weeks to restore. Just do your best and keep to your regular exercise schedule.

Exercise and Breast Surgery Recovery

Woman stretching arms before exercise
Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

There are many other exercises that can help you regain? a good range of motion in your arm, shoulder, and chest muscles. If you need help learning these exercises or want professional help, find a good therapist that can help you. The disciplines of Pilates, physical therapy, sports medicine, and orthopedics can be of great help.

Keep exercising after breast surgery to regain your strength and flexibility. A healthy diet and regular exercise are good habits to establish — it will lower your risk of recurrence, improve your mood, and help you lose weight.

Things to Remember 

Be sure to discuss your exercise plans with your doctor — before you start. Don’t overdo physical activity in the weeks after your surgery. Be gentle with your affected arm. Increase your exercise repetitions very gradually. Stop and get help if you have pain that doesn’t go away, develop swelling near any incision, or have persistent headaches or blurred vision.

Your goal is to recover motion and flexibility in your arms, shoulders and chest muscles, and to promote lymph drainage, which helps prevent lymphedema. Give yourself several weeks to recover from breast surgery, and remember that exercises can help!

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