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Lymphoedema research

Research helps us to find out more about conditions such as lymphoedema. Researchers are looking at what reduces your risk of developing lymphoedema and different ways of managing lymphoedema.

Why we need research

All treatments must be fully researched before they can become standard treatment for everyone. This is so that we can be sure they are safe and work better than the treatments we already use.

Causes and reducing the risk

We know that surgery to lymph nodes increases the risk of lymphoedema. But not everyone develops it. Research has looked into why some people get swelling after surgery and some don’t. 

Researchers have also looked at genes and the risk of lymphoedema. They look at the genes of people who had treatment for breast cancer. They have linked 4 genes to a higher risk of developing lymphoedema. Knowing who might be at a higher risk, could help doctors to spot it early. Then they can start treatment early when it works best.

These are early findings, and we need more research to confirm it. It will be some time before tests for the genes will be available.

Reducing the risk of lymphoedema in breast cancer

Scientists are looking at why some women are more likely to get lymphoedema. They are looking at women after surgery for breast cancer. The researchers are monitoring these women before surgery and for some time afterwards. They are hoping to find differences between women who develop swelling and those who don’t.

Researchers are looking at:

  • using reflexology to manage lymphoedema
  • finding lymphoedema early
  • if wearing a compression sleeve might help prevent lymphoedema (PLACE study)

Sentinel lymph node biopsy

For some cancers, surgery involves removing some or all the lymph nodes in the area of cancer. Removing some or all the lymph nodes can lead to lymphoedema.

Doctors use sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) to check lymph nodes for cancer. SLNB checks the first lymph node, or first few nodes, that lymph drains into from the area of cancer. Unless these nodes contain cancer cells, the surgeon does not need to remove the other nodes in the area. So there may be a less risk of lymphoedema.

Researchers have looked at whether this test could reduce cases of lymphoedema in the future.  

Researchers are also looking at using sentinel node testing during surgery for vulval cancer.


One treatment for lymphoedema involves the use of a pneumatic compression pump. There are different types of pumps. Researchers are comparing these. They want to find out if one works better than the other for arm and leg lymphoedema.

Researchers are also looking at using complementary therapy. They want to see if it helps to give people a better quality of life when they have lymphoedema. Researchers have looked into:

  • acupuncture, a complementary therapy using needles 
  • moxibustion, which is a form of heat therapy

A small study of 35 people suggests that these treatments are safe to use when you have lymphoedema. This is as long as you don't have it in the affected area.

People in the study reported some physical and emotional benefits. That included less pain, discomfort, or heaviness in the area of the lymphoedema. They also had a better sleep, more energy, lower stress levels, and less need for medicines.

Scientists say that we need more research to confirm these findings.

Last reviewed: 
21 Jun 2017
  • Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Database

    Accessed 2017

  • Assessing the feasibility of using acupuncture and moxibustion to improve quality of life for cancer survivors with upper body lymphoedema

    BA de Valois and others

    European Journal of Oncology Nursing, 2012

    Volume 16, Issue 3

  • Best Practice for the Management of Lymphoedema: an international consensus

    Lymphoedema Framework, 2006

  • Connexin 47 mutations increase risk for secondary lymphedema following breast cancer treatment

    DN Finegold and others

    Clinical Cancer Research, 2012

    Volume 18, Issue 8

  • Guidelines for the diagnosis, assessment and management of lymphoedema

    Clinical Resource Efficiency Support Team (CREST), 2008

  • Lymphoedema Care
    M Woods
    Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007

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