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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Systematic review: conservative treatments for secondary lymphedema

Mark Oremus12, Ian Dayes3, Kathryn Walker12 and Parminder Raina12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

2 McMaster Evidence-based Practice Centre, McMaster University, 1280 Main Street West, DTC-310, Hamilton, Ontario, L8S 4K1, Canada

3 Department of Oncology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

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BMC Cancer 2012, 12:6  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-12-6

Published: 4 January 2012



Several conservative (i.e., nonpharmacologic, nonsurgical) treatments exist for secondary lymphedema. The optimal treatment is unknown. We examined the effectiveness of conservative treatments for secondary lymphedema, as well as harms related to these treatments.


We searched MEDLINE®, EMBASE®, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials®, AMED, and CINAHL from 1990 to January 19, 2010. We obtained English- and non-English-language randomized controlled trials or observational studies (with comparison groups) that reported primary effectiveness data on conservative treatments for secondary lymphedema. For English-language studies, we extracted data in tabular form and summarized the tables descriptively. For non-English-language studies, we summarized the results descriptively and discussed similarities with the English-language studies.


Thirty-six English-language and eight non-English-language studies were included in the review. Most of these studies involved upper-limb lymphedema secondary to breast cancer. Despite lymphedema's chronicity, lengths of follow-up in most studies were under 6 months. Many trial reports contained inadequate descriptions of randomization, blinding, and methods to assess harms. Most observational studies did not control for confounding. Many studies showed that active treatments reduced the size of lymphatic limbs, although extensive between-study heterogeneity in areas such as treatment comparisons and protocols, and outcome measures, prevented us from assessing whether any one treatment was superior. This heterogeneity also precluded us from statistically pooling results. Harms were rare (< 1% incidence) and mostly minor (e.g., headache, arm pain).


The literature contains no evidence to suggest the most effective treatment for secondary lymphedema. Harms are few and unlikely to cause major clinical problems.