Studies suggest that low-level laser therapy may be effective in reducing lymphedema in a clinically meaningful way for some women.[Level of evidence: I] Two cycles of laser treatment were found to be effective in reducing the volume of the affected arm, extracellular fluid, and tissue hardness in approximately one-third of patients with postmastectomy lymphedema at 3 months posttreatment. Suggested rationales for laser therapy include a potential decrease in fibrosis, stimulation of macrophages and the immune system, and a possible role in encouraging lymphangiogenesis.
Surgery is rarely performed on patients who have cancer-related lymphedema. The primary surgical method for treating lymphedema consists of removing the subcutaneous fat and fibrous tissue with or without creation of a dermal flap within the muscle to encourage superficial-to-deep lymphatic anastomoses. These methods have not been evaluated in prospective trials, with adequate results for only 30% of patients in one retrospective review. In addition, many patients face complications such as skin necrosis, infection, and sensory abnormalities. The oncology patient is usually not a candidate for these procedures. Other surgical options include the following:
- Microsurgical lymphaticovenous anastomoses, in which the lymph is drained into the venous circulation or the lymphatic collectors above the area of lymphatic obstruction.
- Superficial lymphangiectomy.
Manual lymphedema therapy
Manual lymphedema therapy, a type of massage technique, involves the use of a very light superficial massage with gentle, rhythmic skin distention, ideally limited to pressures of approximately 30 mmHg to 45 mmHg. In comparison to many other massage techniques, manual lymphedema therapy is very light to the touch. The strokes often feel like a "brushing" technique. Manual lymphedema therapy decreases congested lymph nodes by directing it to the circulatory and lymphatic system. Manual lymphedema therapy begins on unaffected areas to direct the lymph away from the affected extremity.
A limited number of trials have been conducted among women with breast cancer who are experiencing lymphedema. These trials have reported significant reductions in limb volume when manual lymphedema therapy is administered as the sole intervention or as an adjunct to standard of care.[18,19,20][Level of evidence: I] However, large randomized controlled trials are needed to confirm these preliminary findings.
Manual lymphedema therapy should be introduced in a closely supervised medical setting, by a clinician specifically trained in manual lymphedema therapy. No adverse events have been reported in the pilot studies that administered manual lymphedema therapy to women with breast cancer. The reported adverse events are associated with the general discipline of massage therapy and are largely related to treatments delivered by unlicensed massage therapists or treatments that include deep and rigorous massage techniques. Manual lymphatic therapy, also known as manual lymphatic drainage, can be taught to patients for self-care.