5 Most Common Musculoskeletal Side Effects of Breast Cancer Treatment

Breast cancer treatment is one of the hardest ordeals a woman (or man) can go through. The drugs, radiation, and chemotherapy are designed to be tough on cancer, not easy on your body.

The side effects that happen concurrent with treatment are well known: fatigue, nausea, weakness, and hair loss, but the long-term effects are less talked about. Cancer treatment often causes musculoskeletal complications, and most women will experience upper body pain or dysfunction as a result of breast cancer treatment.

Musculoskeletal disorders are caused when cancer treatment damages the muscles, tendons, joints, and connective tissue, causing compromised range of motion and pain or weakness. Here are five common disorders that breast cancer patients may encounter:

Photo: AdobeStock/pathdoc
Photo: AdobeStock/pathdoc

1. Rotator Cuff Tendonitis

Your rotator cuff is made up of muscles that surround the shoulder joint and allow for safe rotation of the shoulder. Cases of rotator cuff injuries and tendonitis are common in the general population because of the high stress placed on the joint from throwing, twisting, and reaching. Rotator cuff tendonitis is also a common musculoskeletal side effect of breast cancer treatment. Tendonitis occurs when a rotator cuff tendon becomes inflamed and causes pain, muscle weakness, and an increased risk of tearing a tendon.

Photo: AdobeStock/RFBSIP
Photo: AdobeStock/RFBSIP

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What’s the link to breast cancer?

There are a few cancer complications that can contribute to rotator cuff tendonitis: Scarring from surgery may compromise normal range of motion and contribute to altered movement patterns which place added stress on the shoulder joint and rotator cuff. Radiation treatment can cause muscles and tissues to tighten and further restrict movement. Finally, posture change from treatment and general weakness can also contribute to stress and inflammation in the rotator cuff.


Over-the-counter drugs can be used to treat the pain and inflammation of rotator cuff tendonitis, and physical therapy can strengthen muscles and correct muscles imbalances. Steroid injections may be necessary in more extreme cases. Exercises strengthening the rotator cuff muscles may help patients avoid the complication altogether.

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