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Lymphoedema research

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

Why we need research

We have to fully research all treatments 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 women get swelling after breast cancer surgery and some don’t.

Researchers also looked at genes and the risk of lymphoedema in 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 of lymphoedema could help doctors to spot it early. Then they can start treatment earlier 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.

Research into managing lymphoedema in breast cancer

Researchers are looking at:

  • using reflexology to manage lymphoedema
  • whether wearing a compression sleeve might help prevent lymphoedema (the PLACE study)

Sentinel lymph node biopsy

For some cancers, surgery involves removing some or all of the lymph nodes in the area of the cancer. Removing 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 doesn't need to remove the other nodes in the area. So there may be a lower risk of lymphoedema.

Researchers have looked at whether this test could reduce cases of lymphoedema for women with breast cancer in the future.

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


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

Researchers are also looking at using complementary therapies. They want to see if they help 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 July 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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