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Lymphoedema research

Research helps us to find out more about conditions such as lymphoedema. Finding out what causes it can help us prevent it and to develop better treatments.

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 prevention

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

Researchers have also been investigating whether genes may increase lymphoedema risk. They have found 4 genes that could be linked to a higher risk. Knowing who might be at higher risk of developing lymphoedema 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.

Preventing lymphoedema in breast cancer

Scientists are looking at why some women are more likely to get lymphoedema after surgery for breast cancer. They are monitoring women before surgery and for some time afterwards. They are looking for 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

Sentinal node biopsy

A sentinel node biopsy (SNB) is used to check lymph nodes for cancer. Researchers are looking at whether this test could reduce cases of lymphoedema in the future.

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

SNB checks the first lymph node, or first few nodes, that lymph drains into from the area of the cancer. Unless these nodes contain cancer cells, the surgeon does not need to remove the other nodes in the area. So there’s less risk of lymphoedema.

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


Research is going on all the time to try to improve cancer treatments and reduce side effects, including lymphoedema.

One treatment involves applying light pressure with a compression pump. There are different types of pump. Researchers are comparing different types to find out if one works better than the other for leg lymphoedema.

Researchers are interested in using complemetary therapy to help give people a good quality of life when they have lymphoedema. Some researchers are interested in:

  • 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, as long as they aren’t used in the affected area.

People in the study reported some physical and emotional benefits including less pain, discomfort, or heaviness in the area of the lymphoedema. They also had 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: 
03 Apr 2014
  • Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Database

    Accessed 2014

  • 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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