Lymphoedema research

Research helps us find out more about conditions like lymphoedema Open a glossary item. 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. 

Some of the trials on this page have now stopped recruiting people. It takes time before the results are available. This is because the trial team follow the patients for a period of time and collect and analyse the results. We have included this ongoing research to give examples of the type of research being carried out in lymphoedema.

Research and clinical trials

All 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 people 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. 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. It also might be possible to develop drug treatments to prevent or lessen lymphoedema.  

Identifying people at risk of getting lymphoedema

Researchers in America and Europe have looked at genes and the risk of lymphoedema. This was in people who had treatment for breast cancer. They found that a number of gene changes were linked to a higher risk of developing lymphoedema. This suggests that lymphoedema may not just be related to the damage caused by cancer treatment.

This information could be useful to work out who is more at risk of developing this condition. 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. So, it will be some time before tests for the genes will be available.

Preventing lymphoedema

Doctors are looking at the benefits of manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) to prevent lymphoedema. Manual lymphatic drainage is a type of specialised massage. It's used in people who have developed lymphoedema. This study is for people who have all the lymph nodes in their armpit removed after surgery for breast cancer. This is called an axillary lymph node dissection.

There isn’t currently enough evidence to say MLD can prevent lymphoedema and more research is needed to look at this.

Research into managing lymphoedema

Researchers have looked at different ways to:

  • manage lymphoedema and
  • improve current treatments

A lot of research into treating lymphoedema is in people who develop it after having surgery and radiotherapy to the lymph nodes for breast cancer. Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer. So, more people are available who can take part in clinical trials. But there is also research looking at lymphoedema of the legs, due to treatment for other types of cancer.

Compression pumps 

Studies are looking at how well intermittent pneumatic compression pumps work for lymphoedema in the leg. Pneumatic compression pumps use compressed air to apply pressure to the affected limb. 

They want to find out:

  • how much swelling is reduced after using these pumps for a period of time
  • if there are any skin changes after using the pumps
  • how easy the pumps are to use
  • if some pumps work better than others

One study is also looking at the quality of life Open a glossary item in people using compression pumps.

Compression bandages

Researchers are comparing two different types of compression bandages to reduce lymphoedema in the legs. They want to find out if one is better than the other in reducing the swelling. They are also looking at possible problems people may have when they use these bandages.

Treating infections in people with lymphoedema

People with lymphoedema are at risk of developing an infection called cellulitis. Cellulitis affects the deep layers of the skin. This type of infection can cause damage to the lymphatic vessels. Cellulitis can be serious and is treated with antibiotics.

After treatment for cellulitis doctors often prescribe long term antibiotics to reduce the risk of it from returning. This is called prophylactic treatment. A study is looking at the benefits and risks of taking these antibiotics. Doctors also want to understand how people cope with taking antibiotics on a regular basis over a long period of time. 

Surgery to lymph vessels

In this study, researchers are looking at surgery to change the route of the lymph vessels. The surgeon attaches the lymph vessels to nearby tiny blood vessels (veins). The lymph fluid can then drain into the veins reducing the amount of fluid in the arm. This is lymphaticovenous surgery (LVA). Doctors want to find out:

  • how well LVA works
  • how safe it is
  • how LVA affects quality of life

Research into complementary therapies for lymphoedema


Reflexology is a complementary therapy. It 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 these were safe. People taking part in this study reported some improvement in their symptoms. 

This study recruited a small number of people. More research with a larger number of people is needed to see how much it could help to improve symptoms.

Go to our trials database to look for trials for lymphoedema. Use the tabs along the top to look for trials that are recruiting, closed or have results.

  • Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Database

    Accessed August 2023

  • Commissioning Guidance for Lymphoedema Services for Adults in the United Kingdom

    The National Lymphoedema Partnership, 2019

  • All-Ireland Lymphoedema Guidelines for the Diagnosis, Assessment and Management of Lymphoedema
    Accessed, August 2023

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

    DN Finegold and others

    Clinical Cancer Research, 2012, volume 18, Issue 8

  • Lymphoedema Care
    M Woods
    Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007

Last reviewed: 
22 Aug 2023
Next review due: 
22 Aug 2026

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