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The Real Truth about Physical Therapy for Cancer Pain

Cancer and options for treating it, such as radiation and physical therapy

Hello, this is Dr. Brent Wells. The National Cancer Institute estimates the number of new cases of cancer to be 439.2 per 100,000 U.S. adults (men and women), given 2011-2015 cases. While those numbers are pretty disheartening, the National Cancer Institute also reports that there were 15.5 million people living with cancer in the US in 2016. Even better sounding is the prediction that the number of survivors will jump to 20.3 million by 2026. With advancements in technology and cancer treatments, likely better treatment options will continue to become available, giving people with cancer a better chance at beating their disease. One treatment option is physical therapy. Is physical therapy for cancer pain a real thing, does it work?

The Cancer Diagnosis and First Steps

For anyone who receives a cancer diagnosis, the news is heart-wrenching and for a moment at least it’s life-shattering too. Nobody wants to be told by their doctor that they have cancer, even if it is one of the treatable forms.

When it comes to treatment, the first step is typically to speak with a radiologist, oncologist, doctor, and nurses. And so begins the grueling road to curing or putting cancer in remission. There are rounds of chemotherapy, radiation treatment, medication, and a vast amount of other steps that any patient will have to go through to try and kill off whatever has taken over their body.

About 1 in 8 women get breast cancer, including Amanda shown here holding chemo sign
Staff Sgt. Amanda Dick celebrates her last chemo treatment with her family. Courtesy Photo, US Air Force.

Physical Therapy and Cancer Rehabilitation

Getting physical therapy isn’t the first thing that most people think of when their minds are evaluating options for cancer treatment. However, after all of the more traditional appointments have been done and cancer goes into remission or is eliminated, the person that went through treatment is left weak and exhausted. That’s when medical professionals start considering physical therapy for cancer patients as part of the treatment plan.

While the human body can withstand a lot, cancer treatment can leave anyone with conditions like:

  • Cancer-related fatigue (CRF)
  • Nerve damage
  • Pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Pain
  • Lymphedema
  • Incontinence

In these areas, it is possible to get help after cancer using physical therapy. For example, someone in remission from cancer can effectively manage lymphedema through aerobic exercise, lymphatic bandaging, and range of motion exercise.

Furthermore, during cancer treatments and afterward, the proper use of strength training, function management training, and aerobic exercises can potentailly help reduce cancer-related fatigue. When a patient decides that they want to be part of an oncology rehabilitation program, a professional will put together a treatment program that is based solely on that person’s needs.

Female physical therapist with patient
How exactly does physical therapy relate to cancer treatment? Photo by Rose Physical Therapy Group, CC by 2.0, via Flickr.

Not everyone is going to suffer the same side effects after treatment, and the physical therapy they receive must be in line with what their bodies need. For most people, it will be a combination of light resistance exercises, range-of-motion movements, and strength training to improve the well-being, safety, and functioning of that individual.

Physical Therapy for Cancer Pain

Cancer is painful. There’s no way around that. Treatment for cancer is also painful. So, when going through cancer treatments, patients will feel all sorts of discomfort. Even though on most days these diagnosed individuals don’t want to get out of bed, physical therapy and exercise can actually help relieving some of that pain.

To manage cancer pain, a well-skilled physical therapist will first decide what kind of therapy to use for the specific patient they are working with. There is passive and active physical therapy.

Passive and Active Physical Therapy

There are two different types:

  1. Passive treatments – Examples are hot and cold therapy, massage, and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). In this type of therapy, the therapist does most of the work on the patient.
  2. Active treatments – Exercising, stretching, and other physical movements that the patient performs themselves are active treatments. The patient does most of the work and the therapist supervises for safety reasons.

When rehabilitation first begins, most patients will do a combination of passive and active treatments. Beginners are usually heavy on the passive and then work towards completely active for total healing. The exercise and physical therapy motions don’t have to be strenuous for them to work either. The main purpose is to keep the body moving and flexible to help build back strength following cancer treatments.

Along with warding off pain associated with cancer treatments, physical therapy can also:

  • Boost energy levels
  • Help in maintaining a healthy weight
  • Reduce stress
  • Build muscles
  • Lower fatigue

Physical Therapy: What it is and isn’t

For anyone considering physical therapy as a treatment option after cancer, don’t let the idea become overwhelming. It doesn’t mean going to the gym and hitting the bench press right away.

Instead, these programs start out very slowly and only increase as your capabilities improve over time. If all you can do in the first couple of days is a few minutes at a time, that’s what the physical therapy will do for you. Do those few minutes and then in a couple of days, you will be able to do a few more until you are up to the 30 minutes recommendable for a complete session.

Chiropractic Therapy for Cancer Pain Relief

Along with physical therapy, many patients have been seeking out chiropractic care as a non-invasive way to alleviate pain from cancer. Chiropractors focus on the musculoskeletal functioning and pain wherever in the body a patient notices symptoms.

Moreover, through regular treatments, secondary cancer can be preventable, headaches can subside, and stress and tension can lower too. Thus, chiropractic therapy is a viable option for anyone looking for a way to get relief without medication or other more conventional options. Experienced chiropractors know how to create individual treatment plans specifically for cancer survivors dealing with pain, nausea, neuropathy, fatigue, and more.

About Dr. Brent Wells

Dr Brent Wells on massage for anxiety and depression
Dr. Brent Wells on the benefits of touch therapy. Can a massage for anxiety and depression be helpful?

Dr. Brent Wells, D.C. is the founder of Better Health Chiropractic & Physical Rehab in Alaska and has been a chiropractor for over 20 years. His practice has treated thousands of patients from different health problems using various services designed to help give you long-lasting relief.

Dr. Wells is also the author of over 700 online health articles that have been featured on sites such as Dr. Axe and Lifehack. He is a proud member of the American Chiropractic Association and the American Academy of Spine Physicians. And he continues his education to remain active and updated in all studies related to neurology, physical rehab, biomechanics, spine conditions, brain injury trauma, and more.

Works Cited

Cancer Statistics. (2018, April 27). Retrieved October 22, 2018, from National Cancer Institute:

Chiropractic Care. (n.d.). Retrieved October 22, 2018, from Cancer Treatment Centers of America:

Peppin, D. F., & Gentile, J. M. (2015, November 18). Exercise and Physical Therapy for Cancer Pain. Retrieved October 22, 2018, from Practical Pain Management:

Side Effects of Cancer Treatment. (2018, August 9). Retrieved September 22, 2018, from National Cancer Institute:

6 thoughts on “The Real Truth about Physical Therapy for Cancer Pain”

  1. Fantastic post. I see a chiropractor every month for therapeutic massage and an adjustment, but I didn’t realize it was an idea for treating physical pain because of cancer. Thank you!

  2. This is a harsh topic,Christy. I have been experimenting with baking “special cookies”. I know cannibis is not a cure. However, as pain and nausea, control it might be an answer for many.

  3. Great article. Physical therapy helped some for balance issues created by neuropathy. Working with a fitness coach has made a greater impact for me for work in strength training, flexibility, and inner strength.

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