Post-mastectomy Pain Syndrome
After having breast cancer surgery, some women have problems with nerve (neuropathic) pain in the chest wall, armpit, and/or arm that doesn’t go away over time. This is called post-mastectomy pain syndrome (PMPS) because it was first described in women who had mastectomies, but it can also happen after breast-conserving surgery (such as a lumpectomy).
Symptoms of PMPS
The classic symptoms of PMPS are pain and tingling in the chest wall, armpit, and/or arm. Pain may also be felt in the shoulder or surgical scar. Other common complaints include: numbness, shooting or pricking pain, or unbearable itching. Most women with PMPS say their symptoms are not severe.
How common is PMPS?
Studies have shown that between 20% and 30% of women develop symptoms of PMPS after surgery.
PMPS is thought to be linked to damage done to the nerves in the armpit and chest during surgery. But the causes are not known for sure. Women who are younger, who have had a full axillary lymph node dissection (ALND) and not just a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB), or who were treated with radiation after surgery are more likely to have problems with PMPS. Because ALND is done less often now, PMPS is less common than it once was.
It is important to talk to your doctor about any pain you are having. PMPS can cause you to not use your arm the way you should, and over time you could lose the ability to use it normally.
PMPS can be treated. Some pain medicines such as opioids (narcotics) don't always work well for nerve pain, but there are medicines and treatments that do work for this kind of pain. Talk to your doctor to get the pain control you need.
Along with the American Cancer Society, other sources of information and support include:
National Cancer Institute
Toll-free number: 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237)
Offers current information about breast cancer screening, diagnosis, and treatment as well as information on other types of cancer, as well as information for the family and children of people with cancer
National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN)
Made up of experts from many of the nation’s leading cancer centers, the NCCN develops guidelines for doctors to use when treating patients. Some of these guidelines, including one on breast cancer, are available in versions for patients as well. Also provides online information on other topics to help patients, caregivers, and families make informed decisions about cancer care.
Susan G. Komen for the Cure
Toll-free number: 1-877-465-6636
Offers information on breast health and breast cancer; tools, including videos and quizzes; and referrals to support groups. Some written materials in Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, and Korean
*Inclusion on this list does not imply endorsement by the American Cancer Society.
Abeloff MD, Wolff AC, Weber BL, et al. Cancer of the Breast. In: Abeloff MD, Armitage JO, Lichter AS, et al, eds. Clinical Oncology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2008: 1875–1943.
Gärtner R, Jensen MB, Nielsen J, Ewertz M, Kroman N, Kehlet H. Prevalence of and factors associated with persistent pain following breast cancer surgery. JAMA. 2009;302:1985−1992.
Vilholm OJ, Cold S, Rasmussen L, Sindrup SH. The postmastectomy pain syndrome: An epidemiological study on the prevalence of chronic pain after surgery for breast cancer. Br J Cancer. 2008. 99:604–610.
Last Medical Review: February 12, 2016 Last Revised: February 12, 2016
- Facts About Cancer Pain
- How Pain Medicines Are Given
- Opioid Pain Medicines for Cancer Pain
- Non-opioids and Other Drugs Used to Treat Cancer Pain
- Other Medical Treatments for Cancer Pain
- Non-medical Treatments for Pain
- Post-mastectomy Pain Syndrome
- Developing a Pain Control Plan
- Managing Cancer Pain at Home