Lymph oedema in the arms or legs is a frequent complication after lymph-node dissections for cancer. Treatment or prevention can be difficult, and the results  are often unsatisfactory. Consequently, the burden of suffering of cancer patients affected by this problem is immense.

Amongst several options, a little-known massage technique, called lymph-drainage (or lymphatic drainage, LD), is sometimes recommended. It consists of gentle manual movements which lightly push the lymph fluid through the lymphatic vessels that eventually enter into the blood circulation. During a session of lymph-drainage, a specially trained massage therapist lightly moves his or her hands along the lymph vessels to facilitate the lymph flow. The treatment is agreeable and relaxing, but does it really reduce the oedema?

A recent systematic review and meta-analysis of RCTs evaluated the effectiveness of LD in the prevention and treatment of breast-cancer related lymph-oedema. The primary outcome for prevention was the incidence of postoperative lymph-oedema. The outcome for management of  was a reduction in oedema volume.

In total, 10 RCTs with altogether 566 patients were identified. Two studies evaluating the preventive outcome of LD found no significant difference in the incidence of lymph-oedema between the LD and standard treatments. Seven studies assessed the reduction in arm volume, and found no significant difference between the LD and standard treatments.

The authors conclusion was negative about the value of LD: The current evidence from RCTs does not support the use of LD in preventing or treating lymph-oedema. However, clinical and statistical inconsistencies between the various studies confounded our evaluation of the effect of LD on breast-cancer-related lymph-oedema.

Perhaps a brand-new clinical trial which had not been included in the above assessment would have persuaded the authors to be a little more optimistic. This study evaluated the effectiveness of LD in the prevention of lymph-oedema after treatment of breast cancer. The study-population consisted of 67 women, who had undergone surgery for breast cancer. From the second day of surgery, 33 randomly chosen women were given LD. The control group consisted of 34 women who did not receive LD. Measurements of the volumes of both arms were taken before surgery and on days 2, 7, 14, and at 3 and 6 months after surgery.

Among the women who did not have LD, a significant increase in the arm volume on the operated side was observed after 6 month. There was no statistically significant  increase in the volume of the upper limb on the operated side in women who underwent LD.

The authors conclude that regardless of the surgery type and the number of the lymph nodes removed, LD effectively prevented lymph-oedema of the arm on the operated side. Even in high risk breast cancer treatments (operation plus irradiation), LD was demonstrated to be effective against arm volume increase. Even though confirmatory studies are needed, this study demonstrates that LD administered early after operation for breast cancer should be considered for the prevention of lymph-oedema.

So, does LD reduce oedema or not? This does not seem to be such a difficult question that it should take decades to resolve! And who would doubt that it is an important one? Lymph-oedema has the potential to seriously impede the quality of life of many patients, and it can even contribute to unnecessary mortality. The fact that the few available studies are too small and too weak to generate reliable results is disappointing and shines a dim light on the supposedly patient-centred research in oncology, in my view.

The concept of LD is plausible, at least some of the findings from clinical trials are encouraging, and the problem of lymph-oedema is both prevalent and relevant. So what is stopping us from funding a large, well-designed and definitive study?

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