This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on April 21, 2022.

How do mobility challenges affect cancer patients?

For cancer patients, immobility is a lack of movement that may be caused by joint pain, muscle pain and stiffness, malnutrition, cancer metastases, medication, anxiety or depression. Immobility may also be a symptom of soft tissue sarcoma, a cancer that forms in the muscle, fat, blood vessels, nerves, tendons and the lining of joints. Immobility may lead to infections, including pneumonia, which the body may be too weak to fight. It may also increase the risk of blood clots. Remaining in one position for a long period of time puts extra pressure on the spine, which may cause back pain and other sources of debilitating discomfort. Depression is another common risk for bedridden patients who may be unable to care for themselves or maintain an active social life.

How likely are cancer patients to experience immobility?

A number of cancer patients experience physical impairments because of their disease and its treatment. American adults who have been diagnosed with cancer are more likely than those without cancer to request help with basic, daily living activities.

How may supportive care help?

Incorporating traditional and supportive therapies may help address several underlying causes of immobility. Supportive therapies work together to help patients get stronger and, for some, regain their mobility and quality of life.

The supportive care services that may be recommended include:

Oncology rehabilitation

Oncology rehabilitation uses individualized treatments, including physical and occupational therapies, to help immobile patients get back on their feet. Oncology rehabilitation therapists design specific programs for each patient that may include range-of-motion training and light-resistance exercises, along with manual manipulation, especially if immobility is a byproduct of pain. These workouts aim to reduce muscle weakness and improve physical function, safety and well-being. Oncology rehabilitation therapists may also prescribe pre- and post-surgery strengthening exercises to help patients prepare their bodies for surgery.

Learn more about oncology rehabilitation

Pain management

The pain caused by cancer may be overwhelming and constant for some patients. If the patient has difficulty moving because of pain, pain management specialists may be able to help. These specialists may recommend over-the-counter or prescription medication, chosen to suit each patient and to reduce side effects. Other pain management techniques, such as implanted pain pumps and nerve-block therapies, may also be an option. The pain team may also help coordinate with rehabilitation services and other supportive care therapies.

Learn more about pain management

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