Physical Therapy

Head and neck cancer can affect your ability to move and perform daily activities. A physical therapist (PT) is a health care professional that diagnoses and treats patients with medical problems that limit their ability to do their usual activities. A PT evaluates you and develops a plan of care to help you meet your recovery goals. These might include increasing your ability to move, reducing pain, restoring function and preventing disability.

Why would you need a physical therapist?

The reasons include any of the following:

  • If you have limitations in moving your head or neck (limited range of motion)
  • If you have weakness or pain in your neck, shoulders, or arms
  • If you have general deconditioning following cancer treatment
  • If you have swelling in your face or neck
  • If you have a change in your head or neck posture
  • If you notice problems with your balance or feel you are at risk to fall
  • If you have a constricted feeling or limitation in movement from your scars

What does the physical therapist do?

A physical therapist will:

  • Teach you adaptations so you can carry out your daily living activities at home
  • Treat you for head or neck swelling using manual therapy, compression, and exercise
  • Help you increase your ability to move your head and neck through manual techniques, stretching, and home exercise programs
  • Help you to strengthen your neck, shoulders, and arms by prescribing exercise programs for your specific problem
  • Educate you about the benefits of general exercise and help you attain your conditioning goals

When might you expect to see a physical therapist?

  • If your physician notices that you have a problem with your neck or shoulders, he or she may recommend that you see a physical therapist before surgery.
  • Physical therapists work with you while you are an in-patient to help you get up and move, so you can return home safely as soon as possible.
  • You may have a scheduled appointment once your surgery is over, and before, during, or after radiation therapy.
  • Your physical therapist and speech therapist often work closely together to help you recover neck mobility, swallowing, and speech.

Self-monitoring: when to call your physician to request a PT referral

You should call for a referral to a physical therapist if you:

  • Notice a decrease in movement of your head or neck
  • Notice a gradual increase in swelling in your face or neck
  • Notice gradual weakness in your neck, shoulders, or arms
  • Are having difficulty with balance
  • Have decreased general conditioning