Lymphedema, a common complication of breast cancer, occurs when lymphatic fluid accumulates in the tissues of the arm and breast. When left untreated, lymphedema can lead to tissue swelling, fibrosis, increased risk of pain and infections, loss of limb function, and decreased range of motion. While Western medicine currently approaches lymphedema through a two-phase treatment called complete decongestive therapy (CDT), alternative therapies like acupuncture and moxibustion may provide more effective and lasting relief.
Causes and Risk Factors of Lymphedema
Breast cancer treatments, such as surgery or radiation therapy, can impair the flow of lymph fluid through the lymph nodes and lymphatic vessels. As a result, lymph fluid can accumulate in the interstitial tissue, causing swelling. Without treatment, swelling may intensify and lead to decreased limb mobility or loss of limb function. Additionally, lymphedema may cause increased pain and leave individuals more prone to infection. Known risk factors for developing lymphedema include receiving both surgery and radiation therapy to treat breast cancer (this can increase the likelihood of developing lymphedema by 50 percent), obesity, larger breast size, hormonal therapy, and tumor location in the upper outer quadrant of the breast.
Diagnosis and Treatment for Breast Cancer-Related Lymphedema
When people receive a breast cancer diagnosis, the National Accreditation Program for Breast Cancers recommends that patients be measured to document the pretreatment baseline. After each treatment, patients should be measured to monitor swelling or growth. If lymphedema develops, Western medicine practitioners often recommend complete decongestive therapy (CDT). However, this treatment falls well below 100 percent efficacy, leaving room for more effective and lasting therapies to manage breast cancer-related lymphedema symptoms.
Acupuncture & Moxibustion Treatment for Lymphedema
Alternative therapies, including acupuncture and moxibustion, have demonstrated promise in treating and managing breast cancer-related lymphedema. Although more robust and comprehensive clinical research is needed, existing studies indicate that these therapies are effective. According to one study, patients with chronic lymphedema experienced at least a 30 percent reduction in swelling and pain after receiving acupuncture twice a week for four weeks. Another pilot study found that “acupuncture significantly reduced the circumference in the affected arm.” A meta-analysis concluded, “compared with Western medicine, physiotherapy, and functional training, traditional [acupuncture moxibustion therapy] has significantly higher treatment effect.”
Similarly, a 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis found that acupuncture therapy may improve the effective rate for treating lymphedema and alleviate upper limb swelling, pain, and discomfort, while a pilot study demonstrated that acupuncture therapy reduced arm swelling significantly. In a randomized controlled trial, acupuncture and moxibustion treatment reduced swelling and reduced pain in patients with breast cancer-related lymphedema. People looking for lasting relief from painful swelling and other lymphedema symptoms may find success through acupuncture therapy.
Conveniently located in NW Portland, Inner Works Acupuncture offers personalized acupuncture therapy services. Call (503) 227-2127 today to make an appointment.