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Rib Pain After Lumpectomy, Mastectomy, or Lymph Node Removal

Medically reviewed by Leonora Valdez, M.D.
Posted on August 4, 2023

If you’ve undergone breast cancer surgery such as a lumpectomy, mastectomy, or lymph node removal, you’re likely no stranger to pain. Some people feel post-surgical pain around the ribs. “Has anyone else felt pain in their rib cage after a lumpectomy?” one MyBCTeam member asked.

Most people experience pain after breast cancer surgery that goes away as they recover, but for 20 percent of people, this pain persists longer. In this article, we explore potential causes of rib cage pain after breast cancer surgery, when to see a doctor, and what you can do to manage this symptom.

When Does Rib Cage Pain Start, and How Does It Feel?

As part of breast cancer treatment, many people undergo surgery to remove tumors, breast tissue, and lymph nodes in the chest and the armpit. Lingering pain after this type of surgery isn’t uncommon. One study found that 50 percent of people had mild pain and 16 percent had moderate to severe pain one year after breast cancer surgery.

Some MyBCTeam members who have undergone these procedures discuss the pain they experience afterward. For some members, rib cage pain begins months after breast cancer surgery. “I had a lumpectomy in July,” wrote one member. “In September, I noticed a pain in my rib when I stretched out my left arm.”

Another shared their story of long-lasting pain after breast reconstruction surgery. “I had bilateral mastectomies a year ago, and I still have a lot of issues with rib pain,” they shared.

“The pain isn’t constant,” a third member shared in regard to post-lumpectomy pain. “It’s just occasional sharp jabbing pain, like a knife under that breast and sometimes under my arm on that side.”

For others, pain is achy, dull, or tender. Accurately describing the type of pain you’re experiencing can help your doctor determine what might be causing your pain and the best way to treat it.

What Causes Post-Surgery Rib Pain

There are many reasons why someone may experience rib pain after breast cancer surgery. Keep reading to learn about common pain-related side effects of breast cancer surgery that may be felt in the rib cage area.

Post-Mastectomy Reconstruction Syndrome

Post-mastectomy reconstruction syndrome (PMRS), also called “iron bra syndrome,” is a common side effect experienced by nearly half of people recovering from breast cancer surgery. The term is used to describe chronic pain that persists for at least three months after breast cancer-related surgery. It includes symptoms such as:

  • Trouble taking a deep breath,
  • Swelling of the chest wall
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Reduced range of motion
  • Breast pain and tightness

One member who had breast-conserving surgery wrote, “I asked my surgeon about it, and she said she’s not surprised at my pain because she really had to work to free the tumor from my pectoral muscle.”

Nerve Pain

Numbness, tingling, or shooting pain can be signs of neuropathy (nerve damage). Nerve pain usually goes away on its own after several weeks or months and begins shortly after surgery.

Blood Clots

A painful, discolored, swollen leg that’s warm to the touch could indicate a blood clot, which is a life-threatening complication of surgery. If this symptom is accompanied or followed by shortness of breath or chest pain, it could indicate that the clot has spread to your lungs.

Infections of the Surgical Site

Edema (swelling), warmth, pain, fever, or fluid drainage from your wound are signs of an infection that should be treated right away.

Cancer Recurrence or Spread

People who experience bone pain after cancer treatment may worry about recurrence (cancer returning) and metastasis (the spread of cancer). Recurrence risk depends on breast cancer type, cancer stage, treatment, and individual factors. If you’re concerned that your cancer may have returned, speak to your oncologist. They may want to conduct scans or other testing to ensure you’re still cancer-free.

“They conducted a bone scan to ensure the rib pain wasn’t cancer,” shared one member. “Thankfully, it was clean.”

Common Unrelated Causes of Rib Pain

Rib pain may also be unrelated to breast cancer or treatment. Other common causes of rib cage pain include:

  • A pulled muscle from a sports injury or excessive coughing
  • Costochondritis (inflamed cartilage where your ribs meet your breastbone)
  • A broken rib caused by trauma like a car accident or a fall
  • Acid reflux (heartburn)
  • Muscle spasms

Regardless of what may be causing your rib cage pain, it’s best to speak to your doctor if your pain is ongoing, extreme, recurring, or negatively affecting your quality of life.

Managing Rib Cage Pain

Rib cage pain after breast cancer treatment can range from mild to excruciating. Depending on how severe your pain is, there are different treatment options to consider. It’s important to notify your surgeon about your pain and ask for their medical advice on how to manage it.

Lifestyle Changes for Rib Cage Pain

If you’re experiencing chronic pain, keep a diary of your symptoms to notice what factors make it worse or better. From there, you can make lifestyle changes to prevent your rib cage pain. For example:

  • If an item of clothing (perhaps an underwire bra) irritates your rib area, you can avoid wearing it.
  • If your seat belt presses on your ribcage, you may get a padded seat belt cover.
  • Certain exercises or activities may trigger your pain. If this is the case, a referral to a physical therapist can help you extend your range of motion and regain muscle strength.
  • Try heating pads or ice packs on your rib cage to reduce local pain and inflammation.

Treatment for Rib Cage Pain

For some, lifestyle changes aren’t enough to manage pain. If that’s your experience, speak to your surgeon about medications. Pain medication options may include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or drugs to reduce nerve pain (like amitriptyline or gabapentin).

For people experiencing chronic and severe nerve pain, nerve surgery is another option to decrease or stop nerve pain for long periods of time. Speak to your oncologist, breast surgeon, or primary care doctor about these and other choices to help manage your rib cage pain.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyBCTeam is the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones. More than 64,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their experiences with others who understand life with breast cancer.

Have you experienced rib pain after breast cancer surgery? Do you have tips on how to manage it? Share your experience in the comments below, or join the conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Posted on August 4, 2023
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Leonora Valdez, M.D. received her medical degree from the Autonomous University of Guadalajara before pursuing a fellowship in internal medicine and subsequently in medical oncology at the National Cancer Institute. Learn more about her here.
Scarlett Bergam, M.P.H. is a medical student at George Washington University and a former Fulbright research scholar in Durban, South Africa. Learn more about her here.

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