Study Finds Shoulder Function Decreased After Breast Cancer Treatment

UNC researchers working toward a rehabilitation road map

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - A problematic side effect for women who have undergone breast cancer treatment is loss of shoulder flexibility, strength and function.  However, past studies of the problem compared patients’ surgically affected shoulder to their unaffected shoulder, an approach which doesn’t allow researchers to determine if shoulder function is also reduced by systemic effects of other cancer treatments like radiation and chemotherapy.

A study conducted by a former UNC Human Movement Science doctoral student, Shana Harrington PhD, PT, recently published in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship, has tried to answer this question by comparing shoulder function for cancer survivors who finished their treatment in the six months prior to the study with matched control subjects with healthy/normal shoulder function.

Using standard assessments for arm, shoulder and hand disability and range of motion, these researchers found significant differences in function, range of motion and strength when breast cancer survivors who have recently completed treatment are compared to healthy, matched controls – suggesting that functional impairment is the result of multiple factors.

“As more women are living longer after surviving breast cancer, these kinds of functional deficits as a result of treatment can limit activity and affect women’s quality of life,” said Claudio Battaglini, PhD, one of the mentors for Harrington’s dissertation research and a member of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Our work is a first step toward a better understanding of the true differences in function between women who have not undergone treatment and those who have – that gap being a deficit,” he added.

“We hope that this and future work can provide clinicians with more information regarding shoulder impairments and guide the development of evidence-based guidelines for rehabilitation after breast cancer treatment,” said Battaglini.

In addition to Battaglini, Harrington conducted the research under the mentorship of Diane Groff, EdD (also a UNC Lineberger member), and Darin Padua, PhD (Dr. Harrington’s dissertation advisor), all faculty of UNC Department of Exercise and Sport Science.

This study was funded by UNC University Cancer Research Fund Clinical Innovation Awards 2008-09, the Petro Kulynych Foundation, and National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).

Shana Harrington is now a faculty member at The University of North Florida Department of Clinical and Applied Movement Sciences. Other members of the research team include Lori Michener of the Department of Physical Therapy at Virginia Commonwealth University, Carol Giuliani of the Department of Allied Health Sciences, and Joseph Myers of the Department of Exercise and Sports Science – all from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.