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Updated: Jul 17, 2020




Axillary Web Syndrome (AWS), also referred to as “Cording” in Australia, is a common pathology following lymphadenectomy (breast surgery) and can result in the need for early post-operative and long-term rehabilitation.

Cording refers to a rope-like structure that develops mainly under the armpit but can extend to into the arm. It usually appears after axillary dissection (surgical cutting around the armpit area) and can develop from 9 weeks post procedure. Due to its late presentation, cording may appear after a patient has had their final surgical follow up. As a result, patients often end up seeing a physiotherapist months after the surgery.

Risk factors

  • Axillary node dissection

  • younger age

  • Low BMI


Cording can been seen as a palpable cord of tissue that is made taut and painful with certain shoulder movements (mainly abduction). A pull or stinging feeling is experienced under or down the arm as pain limits full movement. The pain can be described as making you feel like you can’t reach the full distancewhen using your shoulder and arm. Because of its location, cording can significantly limit shoulder, scapular and elbow movements due to pain and tissue adherence. These limitations cause significant impairments with overhead and forward reaching activities of daily living.

Diagnostic criteria

  • Presence of palpable and visible cords of tissue in the axilla in maximal shoulder abduction

  • +/- associated pain

  • +/- shoulder range-of-motion limitation


Scar tissue formation is part of the normal post operative healing process. A mechanism where the new scar tissue must attach to some of the tissue that goes down your arm. The surgery involves the removal of lymphatic vessels which are surrounded by a fine mesh called fascia. It’s this fascia which gets attached to the scar and so as the wound undergoes the healing process the scar tissue forms, tightly grabbing onto the fascia.

The problem is at the scar tissue within the breast, however, the problem feels like it’s in the arm. Although it interferes with reach, the origin of the pathology really does come from the scar tissue within the breast. Inflexibility to the lymph vessels leads to pain and avoidance of movement. As a result of the pain restricting movement, adaptive loss of range of motion may become progressively worse.


Follow the numbers on the image below:

A – Abnormal Flow

  1. Normal lymphatic flow

  2. Lymphatic backflow and congestion

  3. Injured lymphatic vessel attempting to reestablish lymphatic flow to existing lymph vessel (lymphangiogenesis)

  4. Congested lymphatic vessel attempting to establish lymphatic flow through a collateral pathway. It does this by exiting the damaging vessel via smaller pathways closer to the skin where it then finds its way into a large healthy flowing vessel.

Skin (a), subcutaneous tissue (b), healthy lymphatic vessel (c) and injured lymphatic vessel (d)

B – Cord Formation

5) The end of an injured lymph vessel attached to interstitial tissue (“in between tissue”) while attempting to regenerate

6) Newly forming lymphatic vessels become adhered to surrounding tissue while attempting to find collateral pathways to healthy lymphatics

7) Lymphatic vessel adhered in two areas causes tethering of the lymphatic vessel which appears as a “cord” of tissue under the surface of the skin.


The physiotherapists at bounceREHAB are trained in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of cording and can facilitate an appropriate management plan. The clinic offers specific services through PINC Cancer Rehabilitation, STEEL Cancer Rehabilitation and Pain Management.

Treatment may include:

  • Myofascial release techniques

  • Manual therapy

  • Active and passive home exercises

  • Education

  • Skin traction

  • Instruction in soft tissue stretching techniques

  • Heat (must be approved by your health professional)

  • Cord stretching

  • Pulley and gentle passive and active ROM

  • Deep breathing and postural exercises

  • Hooking manipulationsScar management

  • Lightweight compression garments

  • Manual lymphatic drainage

A 2017 research paper by Wariss and colleges found the occurrence of cording was not a risk factor for lymphoedema after 10 years of follow-up


Cording is a poorly understood but common cause of significant morbidity after axillary lymph node dissection for breast cancer. It evolves from the disruption of superficial lymphatics and vessels and results in inflexible lymph vessels which leads to pain and avoidance of movements. These adaptations lead to the loss of range of motion and functional disability. Physiotherapy intervention has been shown to improve the severity and duration of symptoms, helping patients return to full function. For more treatment or more information visit bounceREHAB

Before and after physiotherapy treatment for axillary cord formation following breast cancer surgery


Buum, H. A. T., Koehler, L., & Tuttle, T. M. (2017). Venturing Out on a Limb: Axillary Web Syndrome. The American Journal of Medicine130(5), e209-e210.

Sarri, A. J., Dias, R., Laurienzo, C. E., Gonçalves, M. C. P., Dias, D. S., & Moriguchi, S. M. (2017). arm lymphoscintigraphy after axillary lymph node dissection or sentinel lymph node biopsy in breast cancer. OncoTargets and therapy10, 1451.

Demir, Y., Güzelküçük, Ü., Keskburun, S., Yaşar, E., & Tan, A. K. (2017). A rare cause of shoulder pain: axillary web syndrome.

Wariss, B. R., Costa, R. M., Pereira, A. C. P. R., Koifman, R. J., & Bergmann, A. (2017). Axillary web syndrome is not a risk factor for lymphoedema after 10 years of follow-up. Supportive Care in Cancer25(2), 465-470.

Lewis, P. A., & Cunningham, J. E. (2016). Dynamic Angular Petrissage as Treatment for Axillary Web Syndrome Occurring after Surgery for Breast Cancer: a Case Report. International journal of therapeutic massage & bodywork9(2), 28.

Cho, Y., Do, J., Jung, S., Kwon, O., & Jeon, J. Y. (2016). Effects of a physical therapy program combined with manual lymphatic drainage on shoulder function, quality of life, lymphedema incidence, and pain in breast cancer patients with axillary web syndrome following axillary dissection. Supportive Care in Cancer24(5), 2047-2057.

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Leidenius, M., Leppänen, E., Krogerus, L., & von Smitten, K. (2003). Motion restriction and axillary web syndrome after sentinel node biopsy and axillary clearance in breast cancer. The American journal of surgery185(2), 127-130.

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Moskovitz, A. H., Anderson, B. O., Yeung, R. S., Byrd, D. R., Lawton, T. J., & Moe, R. E. (2001). Axillary web syndrome after axillary dissection. The American journal of surgery181(5), 434-439.

Lacomba, M. T., Del Moral, O. M., Zazo, J. L. C., Sánchez, M. J. Y., Ferrandez, J. C., & Goni, A. Z. (2009). Axillary web syndrome after axillary dissection in breast cancer: a prospective study. Breast cancer research and treatment117(3), 625-630.

Reedijk, M., Boerner, S., Ghazarian, D., & McCready, D. (2006). A case of axillary web syndrome with subcutaneous nodules following axillary surgery. The Breast15(3), 410-412.

Fourie, W. J., & Robb, K. A. (2009). Physiotherapy management of axillary web syndrome following breast cancer treatment: discussing the use of soft tissue techniques. Physiotherapy95(4), 314-320.

Leduc, O., Sichere, M., Moreau, A., Rigolet, J., Tinlot, A., Darc, S., … & Snoeck, T. (2009). Axillary web syndrome: nature and localization. Lymphology42(4), 176.

Tilley, A., Thomas-MacLean, R., & Kwan, W. (2009). Lymphatic cording or axillary web syndrome after breast cancer surgery. Canadian Journal of Surgery52(4), E105.

Kepics, J. M. (2004). Physical Therapy Treatment of Axillary Web Syndrome. Rehabilitation Oncology22(1), 21-22.

Piper, M., Guajardo, I., Denkler, K., & Sbitany, H. (2016). Axillary Web Syndrome: Current Understanding and New Directions for Treatment. Annals of plastic surgery76, S227-S231.


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