Compression Bandage As Effective As Lymphatic Massage for Lymphedema

Lymphatic massage is no better than compression bandages for the treatment of lymphedema, according to the results of a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Lymphedema is the buildup of lymph fluid in the tissues just under the skin, resulting in swelling, tightness, and discomfort in the affected limb. Lymphedema is caused by damage to or blockage of the lymph system, often as a result of surgery or radiation. 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. Evaluation of the axillary nodes often involves a sentinel lymph node biopsy. 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). Lymphedema is a common side effect of axillary lymph node surgery.

There is no single treatment for lymphedema. Treatments include massage-based decongestive therapy (known as lymphatic massage), compression bandages, and specialized exercises. Thus far, there is no data to indicate that one approach is better than another.

Researchers conducted a study of 103 women to compare lymphatic massage and compression bandages as treatment for lymphedema. Women were randomly assigned to either compression garments (control) or daily manual lymphatic drainage and bandaging followed by compression garments (experimental). The primary outcome was the percent reduction in excess arm volume from baseline to six weeks.

The mean reduction of excess arm volume was 29 percent in the lymphatic massage group and 22.6 percent in the compression group. There was no difference between groups in the proportion of patients losing 50 percent or more excess arm volume. Quality of life and arm function were not different between groups.

The researchers concluded that there was no significant improvement in lymphedema with lymphatic massage compared with a more conservative approach of compression bandages.


Dayes IS, Whelan TJ, Julian JA, et al. Randomized trial of decongestive lymphatic therapy for the treatment of lymphedema in women with breast cancer. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2013; 31(30): 3758-3763.

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