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Lymphoedema research

Research helps us find out more about conditions like lymphoedema. Researchers are looking at what might reduce the risk of getting lymphoedema and different ways of managing it.

Go to Cancer Research UK’s clinical trials database if you are looking for a trial for lymphoedema in the UK. There might not be any open trials at the moment. But you can read about the closed trials and look at trial results.  You need to talk to your specialist if there are any trials that you think you might be able to take part in.

Research and clinical trials

All cancer treatments must be fully researched before they can be used for everyone. This is so we can be sure that they:

  • work
  • work better than the treatments already available
  • are safe

Research into lowering lymphoedema risk

We know that surgery to lymph nodes increases the risk of lymphoedema. But not everyone develops it. Researchers have looked into:

  • why some women get swelling after breast cancer surgery and some don’t
  • ways to identify people at risk of getting lymphoedema
  • ways to prevent lymphoedema developing

Why do some people get lymphoedema?

In one study, the researchers found a small group of women were more likely to develop lymphoedema. And the researchers found some differences in those women who developed breast cancer related lymphoedema compared to those who didn't.

In the future it might be possible to identify these women before surgery. And it also might be possible to develop drug treatment to prevent or lessen lymphoedema.  

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.

Identifying people at risk of lymphoedema

Researchers are looking at tests to measures fluid build up in tissue. They want to see if these tests can help identify women who are at risk of getting lymphoedema after surgery for breast cancer. If it’s possible to predict this, it may be possible to try and stop it developing.

Preventing lymphoedema

Another study is looking at whether a compression sleeve can help prevent lymphoedema. The researchers want to find out whether treating early signs of arm swelling with external compression reduces the number of women who go on to develop lymphoedema. External compression involves wearing an elastic sleeve each day. It’s already used to treat lymphoedema.

Research into managing lymphoedema in breast cancer

Researchers have looked at different ways to manage lymphoedema and how to improve current treatments.  

Researchers have looked at several complementary therapies including:

  • reflexology
  • acupuncture and moxibustion

Reflexology

Reflexology is a complementary therapy that applies gentle pressure to the feet or hands to stimulate energy pathways in the body. 

A study team found that reflexology was a useful treatment for lymphoedema after breast cancer surgery. It reduced swelling and pain in the affected arm and improved quality of life.

Acupuncture and moxibustation

Acupuncture uses fine sterile needles which are put just under the skin at particular points on the body. Moxibustion is used in traditional Chinese medicine.  It involves heating herbs to warm the acupuncture points.

A study looked at acupuncture and moxibustion.  The researchers found that acupuncture and moxibustion was safe and the people taking part in this study reported some improvement in their symptoms. More research is needed to see how much it could help to improve symptoms.

Last reviewed: 
29 Jul 2020
Next review due: 
28 Jul 2023
  • Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Database

    Accessed August 2020

  • 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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