Acupuncture May Reduce Lymphedema in Breast Cancer

Acupuncture may be a safe and effective alternative for reducing arm lymphedema in patients with breast cancer, according to the results of a study published in Cancer.

For women with early breast cancer, determining whether the cancer has spread to the axillary (under the arm) lymph nodes is an important part of cancer staging—and this process often involves a sentinel lymph node biopsy, as the sentinel nodes are the first lymph nodes to which cancer is likely to spread. If the sentinel nodes contain cancer, women often undergo more extensive lymph node surgery (axillary lymph node dissection). One common side effect of axillary lymph node surgery is lymphedema of the arm—swelling of the arm due to an accumulation of lymph fluid.

Lymphedema may occur immediately after treatment, or it may arise weeks, months or even years later. Approximately 30 percent of breast cancer survivors are affected by arm lymphedema. The condition can be painful, inconvenient, and sometimes downright debilitating. There is no single treatment for lymphedema, but there are a variety of strategies that can be used to manage the condition. These strategies are expensive and often require ongoing intervention.

In an effort to identify alternative treatment strategies, researchers conducted a pilot study that included 33 patients who had undergone axillary surgery and had a clinical diagnosis of breast cancer-related arm lymphedema for 6 months to 5 years. All participants had an affected arm circumference that was two or more centimeters larger than the unaffected arm.

All subjects received 30-minute acupuncture treatments twice a week for four weeks. Arm circumference was measured before and after each acupuncture treatment, with response defined as more than 30 percent reduction in circumference difference. After the 4-week treatment period, follow-up calls were made monthly for 6 months to document complications and self-reported lymphedema status.

The results of the study indicated that 11 patients experienced a 30 percent or greater reduction in arm circumference difference and 18 had a reduction of more than 20 percent. The overall mean reduction in arm circumference difference was 0.90 centimeters. The majority of patients (76%) received all eight treatments; 21 percent missed one treatment and one patient missed two treatments.

There were no serious adverse events, infections, or exacerbations. During the treatment period, 14 of the 33 patients reported minor complaints, such as mild local bruising or pain/tingling.

The researchers concluded that acupuncture for breast cancer-related lymphedema appears safe and effective and may reduce arm circumference.




Cassileth BR, Van Zee KJ, Yeung KS, et al. Acupuncture in the treatment of upper-limb lymphedema: Results of a pilot study. Cancer. 2013; 119(13): 2455-2461.