5 Most Common Musculoskeletal Side Effects of Breast Cancer Treatment

2. Adhesive Capsulitis (Frozen Shoulder)

Frozen shoulder is also relatively common in the general population, especially among those with diabetes. Frozen shoulder causes pain and decreased range of motion in the shoulder. The causes of frozen shoulder are not fully understood, but it usually occurs after injury or trauma, and shoulder inactivity after injury contributes to the condition.

Post-treatment inactivity and compromised movement cause inflammation in the connective tissue lining the shoulder joint and could cause additional scarring, which then thickens the tissue around the shoulder and tightens the joint capsule. All of this increasingly limits the mobility of the shoulder.

Photo: AdobeStock/olgavolodina
Photo: AdobeStock/olgavolodina

What’s the link to breast cancer?

Breast cancer patients are naturally advised to limit the use of the affected arm and shoulder post-surgery (or both arms and shoulders if both were affected) so that their body can heal. Pain from surgery and other complications may further decrease movement and contribute to frozen shoulder.


Frozen shoulder has three phases: freezing or onset, frozen, and thawing or resolution. The entire process usually lasts one to two years. The beginning stage when the shoulder is starting to freeze up usually involves the most pain, and the frozen stage may involve less pain but also less range of motion. In the thawing stage pain lessens and range of motion gradually improves.

Treatment includes physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medication, and injections (for extreme cases). Stretching and strengthening exercises may help limit the loss of range of motion and could help prevent frozen shoulder from starting. Since the condition is caused by shoulder inactivity, cancer patients should begin using their shoulder according to their doctor’s guidelines as soon as they’re able. See here for exercises that can help relieve symptoms of frozen shoulder.

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