Review| Volume 149, ISSUE 1, P3-9, March 2010

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Different physical treatment modalities for lymphoedema developing after axillary lymph node dissection for breast cancer: A review

Published:December 07, 2009DOI:


      The purpose of this article is to provide a systematic review of Combined Physical Therapy, Intermittent Pneumatic Compression and arm elevation for the treatment of lymphoedema secondary to an axillary dissection for breast cancer. Combined Physical Therapy starts with an intensive phase consisting of skin care, Manual Lymphatic Drainage, exercises and bandaging and continues with a maintenance phase consisting of skin care, exercises, wearing a compression sleeve and Manual Lymphatic Drainage if needed.
      We have searched the following databases: PubMed/MEDLINE, CINAHL, EMBASE, PEDro and Cochrane. Only (pseudo-) randomised controlled trials and non-randomised experimental trials investigating the effectiveness of Combined Physical Therapy and its different parts, of Intermittent Pneumatic Compression and of arm elevation were included. These physical treatments had to be applied to patients with arm lymphoedema which developed after axillary dissection for breast cancer.
      Ten randomised controlled trials, one pseudo-randomised controlled trial and four non-randomised experimental trials were found and analysed. Combined Physical Therapy can be considered as an effective treatment modality for lymphoedema. Bandaging the arm is effective, whether its effectiveness is investigated on a heterogeneous group consisting of patients with upper and lower limb lymphoedema from different causes. There is no consensus on the effectiveness of Manual Lymphatic Drainage. The effectiveness of skin care, exercises, wearing a compression sleeve and arm elevation is not investigated by a controlled trial. Intermittent Pneumatic Compression is effective, but once the treatment is interrupted, the lymphoedema volume increases.
      In conclusion, Combined Physical Therapy is an effective therapy for lymphoedema. However, the effectiveness of its different components remains uncertain. Furthermore, high-quality studies are warranted. The long-term effect of Intermittent Pneumatic Compression and the effect of elevation on lymphoedema are not yet proven.


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