Effects of Pilates exercises on shoulder ROM, pain, mood, and UE function in women living with breast cancer: a pilot study.

by BASI Pilates

Keays KS, Harris SR, Lucyshyn JM and MacIntyre DL.

Effects of Pilates exercises on shoulder ROM, pain, mood, and UE function in women living with breast cancer: a pilot study. Physical Therapy. 2008;88:494-510

Although this research was published in 2008, I think it is important to share it with our Pilates Community in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In this study, they examined the effects of Pilates exercises on shoulder range of motion (ROM), pain, mood, and upper extremity (UE) function in women who had previously been treated for breast cancer.  The subjects were 4 women who had undergone surgical removal and completed radiation therapy for stage I to IV breast cancer at least 6 months prior.  Surgical intervention and radiation therapy to the breast or axilla (armpit area) can contribute to reduced shoulder mobility lasting up to 8 years after treatment. Another side effect from these treatments is shoulder pain – which is a result of fibrosis, scarring, or nerve damage.  This also can persist from months to years after surgery.  Clearly, pain and limited use of the shoulder negatively influence mood and quality of life.  Anxiety, depression, and poor body image are common problems that can continue despite improved physical function. Exercise, as we all know, has been shown to decrease anxiety and improve self-esteem, vigor, and satisfaction with life.

The 4 women in this study completed 3 Pilates sessions per week for 12 weeks. Each session was 1 hour long and taught by a Certified Pilates instructor.  They chose to use a generic, whole-body program because they believed it to be most accessible to the average woman (in terms of class offerings at typical studios/gyms and cost).   In other words, they did not choose exercises to address the client’s specific issues: decreased shoulder ROM and pain.

After 12 weeks, they found a modest effect of the Pilates exercise program in improving shoulder ROM (specifically abduction and external rotation).   All participants had started reporting decreased pain and improved mood before the exercise program began, so it is difficult to conclude that the Pilates program was responsible for the further improvements seen over the course of the 12 weeks. However, there were no adverse events experienced.  The conclusion therefore, was that Pilates exercises may be an effective and safe exercise option for women who are recovering from breast cancer treatments.  The authors point out that the modest results may be due to the fact that “the Pilates exercise program was a generic ‘whole-body’ program. An individualized, UE-specific program might have resulted in greater shoulder ROM gains”.  In my opinion this study, despite the “modest” results, is helpful to the Pilates community because it shows that yes Pilates is safe, and that even a generic program can help people recovering from breast cancer.  However to really help our clients, we need to look at his or her specific limitations and address these each session. The BASI block system helps us ensure we are still giving our clients a full body workout while doing so.


Summarized and written by Samantha Wood.


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