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Research into lymphoedema and its treatment

This page tells you about research into the causes and treatment of lymphoedema. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what’s on this page

There is research looking into the causes and prevention of lymphoedema, as well as treatment. Researchers are carrying out studies to see why some women develop lymphoedema after breast cancer treatment and why others don't. They are also seeing whether wearing  compression sleeves after breast surgery can help to prevent lymphoedema. 

All treatments must be fully researched before they can be adopted as standard treatment for everyone. This is so that we can be sure they work better than the treatments we already use. And so we know that they are safe. Researchers are looking at whether a test to check lymph nodes called sentinel node biopsy (SNB) could reduce cases of lymphoedema in the future.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating lymphoedema section.

 

 

Why we need research

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

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

You can find out about clinical trials in the trials and research section. You can also search for trials looking at lymphoedema on our clinical trials database. Type ‘lymphoedema’ into the search box.

 

Causes and prevention of lymphoedema

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

Researchers have been looking into whether genes may increase lymphoedema risk. They have found 4 genes that could be linked to a higher risk. Knowing who may be at higher risk of developing it may help doctors to spot lymphoedema early. Then you can start treatment early when it works best. This is early research and we need more research to confirm it. It will be some time before tests for the genes will be available.

Research is also looking into

Preventing lymphoedema in breast cancer

There is a trial looking at why some women are more likely to get lymphoedema after surgery for breast cancer. The women joining this trial are monitored before surgery and for 3 years afterwards. The researchers are looking for differences between women who develop swelling and those who don’t. The trial has now closed and we are awaiting results. 

Researchers looked at when women should start doing the arm and shoulder exercises after having lymph nodes removed from under their arm. They found that delaying the exercises for a week reduced the number of women who developed lymphoedema.

There is a study looking at reflexology to manage lymphoedema after breast cancer treatment. This study will look at how well reflexology works for people with lymphoedema after breast cancer treatment and how it affects their quality of life. This trial has now closed and we are waiting for the results.

There is also a study looking at a new way of detecting early signs of lymphoedema after breast surgery. The study involves taking arm measurements to see how many women develop lymphoedema 2 and 5 years after surgery. 

We know that more than half the women who develop swelling in their arm in the first few months after surgery go on to develop lymphoedema within the next 2 years. The PLACE trial is looking into whether wearing a compression sleeve can help to prevent lymphoedema developing in women who develop this early swelling.

Sentinel node biopsy

Trials are looking at whether a test to check lymph nodes called sentinel node biopsy (SNB) 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.

A test called a sentinel node biopsy checks the first lymph node, or few nodes, that lymph drains into from the area of the cancer. If these nodes don’t contain cancer cells, the other nodes in the area don’t need to be removed, so there is less risk of lymphoedema.

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

The usual treatment for vulval cancer is surgery, including removal of all the nearby lymph nodes. Women may need radiotherapy if the lymph nodes contain cancer cells. In a study some women will have sentinel node biopsy during the surgery instead of removing all their lymph nodes.

If the sentinel nodes don’t contain cancer cells the other lymph glands in the area are not removed and the women won’t have any further treatment. Researchers want to find out if this lowers the risk of lymphoedema and whether it could increase the risk of the cancer coming back.

 

Research into treating lymphoedema

Research is going on all the time to try to improve cancer treatments and reduce side effects, including lymphoedema. You can find out about treatment trials for lymphoedema on our clinical trials database. Type ‘lymphoedema’ into the search box.

One treatment for lymphoedema involves applying light pressure with a compression pump. There are different types of pump. The ACE trial is comparing 2 different types of pump. The aim is to find out if one works better than the other for leg lymphoedema.

One pump helps fluid to drain from your leg and the other helps fluid drain from the leg and the tummy (abdomen). It will be some time before we know whether which works best.

Recent research looked into whether acupuncture and moxibustion can help lymphoedema treatment to work better. These are both complementary therapies used in Chinese medicine. People taking part in the trial had either a breast cancer or a head and neck cancer and were having treatment for lymphoedema.

The people taking part had acupuncture or moxibustion but not in the area of the swelling. The researchers found that these treatments neither increased nor decreased swelling. This 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. The researchers say that we need more research to confirm these findings.

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Updated: 3 April 2014