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Keywords:

  • axillary lymphadenectomy;
  • acupuncture;
  • lymphedema intervention;
  • breast carcinoma;
  • manual lymph drainage;
  • complex decongestive therapy

BACKGROUND

Current treatments for lymphedema after breast cancer treatment are expensive and require ongoing intervention. Clinical experience and our preliminary published results suggest that acupuncture is safe and potentially useful. This study evaluates the safety and potential efficacy of acupuncture on upper-limb circumference in women with lymphedema.

METHODS

Women with a clinical diagnosis of breast cancer−related lymphedema (BCRL) for 0.5-5 years and with affected arm circumference ≥2 cm larger than unaffected arm received acupuncture treatment twice weekly for 4 weeks. Affected and unaffected arm circumferences were measured before and after each acupuncture treatment. Response, defined as ≥30% reduction in circumference difference between affected/unaffected arms, was assessed. Monthly follow-up calls for 6 months thereafter were made to document any complications and self-reported lymphedema status.

RESULTS

Among 37 enrolled patients, 33 were evaluated; 4 discontinued due to time constraints. Mean reduction in arm circumference difference was 0.90 cm (95% CI, 0.72-1.07; P < .0005). Eleven patients (33%) exhibited a reduction of ≥30% after acupuncture treatment. Seventy-six percent of patients received all treatments; 21% missed 1 treatment, and another patient missed 2 treatments. During the treatment period, 14 of the 33 patients reported minor complaints, including mild local bruising or pain/tingling. There were no serious adverse events and no infections or severe exacerbations after 255 treatment sessions and 6 months of follow-up interviews.

CONCLUSIONS

Acupuncture for BCRL appears safe and may reduce arm circumference. Although these results await confirmation in a randomized trial, acupuncture can be considered for women with no other options for sustained arm circumference reduction. Cancer 2013;119:2455-2461. © 2013 American Cancer Society.