8 Things to Know About Winged Scapula

Breast cancer patients are at risk for a number of comorbid diseases and unpleasant treatment side effects. The sheer number of potential health issues that could come up while you’re being treated for breast cancer is overwhelming, and it’s nearly impossible to know everything there is to know about them.

One of the lesser known side effects of breast cancer surgeries is known as winged scapula. The list below will tell you everything you need to know about this painful and confounding condition—from how to know if you have it to how to treat it and get on with your life.

Here are some important things you should know about breast cancer and the potential treatment side effect known as winged scapula.

8. What is winged scapula?

Winged scapula refers to a lack of muscular support of the medial scapula (or shoulder blade) against the thoracic wall. This results in a scapula that sticks out more prominently from the patient’s back than it should. This condition is also known as scapular winging or scapula alata.

7. What causes this condition?

Sports injuries, surgeries, or other health issues can cause nerve damage and result in winged scapula, but breast cancer is one cause that is often overlooked. Winged scapula can happen to any person who has had an axillary lymph node dissection as part of a mastectomy procedure.

6. What does it feel like to have a winged scapula?

This issue can cause pain and discomfort, but that is not always the case. Most patients experience discomfort when sitting in a chair with a hard back or when wearing a backpack, since these activities can put pressure on the area.

5. Do I have winged scapula?

If you are experiencing pain or discomfort in your scapula or the surrounding area, or if you’ve noticed that you can see or feel your scapula sticking out on one side further than the other, you may have a winged scapula. Talk to your doctor to get a better diagnosis.

4. How common is this condition?

Winged scapula is not a well-studied side effect of an axillary lymph node dissection, and not enough is known about it right now. However, new research is finding that this is not an uncommon occurrence; it’s simply overlooked or misdiagnosed in many patients.

A study of 119 people discovered that 10.9 percent of patients who had undergone an axillary lymph node dissection had the condition. Another study of 187 people found that 27.2 percent had it.

Young age and low body mass index may put you at an increased risk for this breast cancer treatment side effect. There are a few different theories on why these contributing factors may raise your risk, but more research needs to be done to lend further insight on the matter.

3. Will it go away on its own?

Winged scapula that is caused by damage to the serratus anterior nerve may go away on its own within two years, sometimes with a little help from light physical therapy or a brace.

In other cases, however, this condition may require a more rigorous treatment plan.

2. What can be done to treat this condition?

Depending on which nerve has been damaged and the extent of the issue, your doctor may suggest a wide variety of treatment plans. These may involve physical therapy, massage, or drugs such as muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatory drugs, or analgesics.

If these treatments do not provide relief, or if the damage is too severe, you may need surgery. Your surgeon may remove nerve or muscle tissue from another area of your body to replace what was lost in the affected area, or a sling might be used to attach the scapula to the ribs or vertebrae to keep it in place.

1. How long will it take to heal?

It may take anywhere from a few months to a few years for a winged scapula to heal. In some cases, there could be some permanent range of motion loss.

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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?