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How to Cope with Chest Tightness After A Mastectomy

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Photography by Jimena Roquero/Stocksy United

Photography by Jimena Roquero/Stocksy United

by Jenna Fletcher


Medically Reviewed by:

Angelica Balingit, MD


by Jenna Fletcher


Medically Reviewed by:

Angelica Balingit, MD


Chest tightness after a mastectomy is normal and common. Certain stretches and exercises can help relieve some of your discomfort.

Experiencing chest tightness following a mastectomy is common and typically happens because of new strains on your muscles.

Fortunately, stretching and exercising can help improve the stiffness you feel during your recovery.

Taking care of yourself following a mastectomy also involves watching for signs of infection or other issues and making sure to take care of your mental and emotional health.

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Is chest tightness after a mastectomy normal?

Chest tightness after a mastectomy is completely normal and common.

Muscle tightness after a mastectomy may happen because:

  • your muscles shorten, putting more pull on your chest
  • scar tissue forms as your body heals from the surgery
  • breast reconstruction may put some strain on your muscles (but this is often temporary)
  • inflammation (swelling)
  • muscle spasms

A common side effect involving the chest and arms is known as post-mastectomy pain syndrome (PMPS). This condition happens when your nerves become damaged during the procedure.

PMPS happens in about 20% to 30% of people undergoing a mastectomy. Symptoms can include numbness or tingling, itching, and shooting or pricking pain in their chest or arms.

If you opted to get breast implants following your mastectomy, a common side effect that can occur is known as capsular contracture. This condition happens when scar tissue forms around the soft material of the implant, which can cause the breast to become hard or look different.

If scar tissue forms, you may need to have another procedure to remove the tissue or to replace the implant later on.

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How long does tightness in the chest last after mastectomy?

If you’ve had or will have a mastectomy, you’ll want to plan to have some down time.

First, plan to spend about 1 to 2 nights in the hospital. During this time, doctors and nurses will monitor your recovery, check your bandages, and talk about any concerns you might have.

Once you go home, many people find their function returns to normal after about 4 weeks. But if you undergo breast reconstruction surgery, you may need additional time to recover, possibly several months.

You and your caregivers will receive instructions from your healthcare team about your recovery period. This can include instructions on topics like:

  • caring for your dressings or bandages
  • bathing and showering
  • signs to look for that may show you have an infection
  • when to call a doctor or nurse
  • activity restrictions

If you have any questions about what you can and shouldn’t do while you recover, make sure to ask your attending doctors and nurses. You should also schedule a follow-up appointment and go prepared with questions.

Exercises and stretches for chest tightness

About 3 to 7 days following your surgery, you can typically start exercises to help relieve chest tightness. But make sure to check with your doctor first. Often, your doctors will provide you with specific exercises to do at home or during physical therapy.

Some examples of exercises that they may recommend include:

  • raising your arms to shoulder height and then lowering them
  • raising your affected arm as you normally would when brushing your hair, bathing, or getting dressed
  • performing deep breathing exercises
  • raising your arm and bending your elbow to touch your shoulder on the same side and repeating on your other side
  • raising your arm and then opening and closing your hand

You may also find that performing shoulder, arm, and chest stretches may help.

The American Cancer Society provides some advice to keep in mind when exercising, including:

  • repeat exercises about 5 to 7 times with proper form (a physical therapist can help you develop proper form)
  • wear loose, comfortable clothing and supportive shoes
  • breath deeply with each exercise
  • take time to warm up a little before hand, which may include taking a hot shower
  • exercise twice a day
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How long does it take to feel normal after a mastectomy?

In about 4 weeks, you should be able to return to most normal activities, but it can take months if you’ve had reconstructive surgery.

You may still feel occasional chest tightness around your scars, but it should improve with time and continuous stretching and exercise.

If you find that you’re not feeling better after several weeks following your procedure, you may want to talk with a doctor. It could be a sign you’re not healing properly.

You’ll also want to check for signs of infection at the surgical site, which can include:

  • scars that feel tender, swollen, or warm to touch
  • redness in the area
  • fluid (discharge) from the wound
  • feeling generally unwell
  • a fever

If you think you may have signs of an infection, call your doctor for care as soon as possible.

Mastectomies can take an emotional toll on your well-being, too. Issues with self-esteem, depression, general anxiety, and insomnia are all relatively common.

In a 2022 study, researchers found that incident rates for mental health conditions like depression or anxiety were highest in people who had a partial mastectomy (only one breast removed) compared to those who had a total mastectomy (both breasts removed).

They also found that people over age 50 had similar rates of depression or anxiety regardless of type of surgery.

If you experience signs of depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns, consider talking with a doctor or a counselor. Mental health treatments can help improve your overall well-being.

The takeaway

A mastectomy can cause chest tightness and other symptoms, like pain or numbness, in or around your chest.

As you recover, you may find that exercises designed to stretch and strengthen your chest may help.

If you don’t find your chest improves after a few weeks, consider speaking with a doctor to figure out what is going on.

During and following recovery, take care of your mental health, too. This can help improve your overall well-being.

Medically reviewed on May 01, 2023

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About the author

Jenna Fletcher

Jenna Fletcher is a freelance writer and content creator. She writes extensively about health and wellness. As a mother of one stillborn twin, she has a personal interest in writing about overcoming grief and postpartum depression and anxiety, and reducing the stigma surrounding child loss and mental healthcare. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Muhlenberg College.

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