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A safety and efficacy pilot study of acupuncture for the treatment of chronic lymphoedema
  1. Barrie R Cassileth1,
  2. Kimberly J Van Zee2,
  3. Yi Chan1,
  4. Marci I Coleton1,
  5. Clifford A Hudis3,
  6. Sara Cohen3,
  7. James Lozada1,
  8. Andrew J Vickers4
  1. 1Integrative Medicine Service, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, USA
  2. 2Department of Surgery, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, USA
  3. 3Breast Cancer Medicine Service, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, USA
  4. 4Integrative Medicine Service and Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Barrie R Cassileth, Chief, Integrative Medicine Service, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, 1429 First Avenue, New York, NY 10021, USA; Cassileth{at}


Background Lymphoedema is a distressing problem affecting many women after breast cancer surgery. There is no cure and existing treatments are marginally beneficial, rarely reducing arm swelling in any meaningful way. Needling and even lifting of objects using the affected arm has been prohibited, but our clinical experience and that of others suggested that acupuncture was safe and that it might be a useful treatment for lymphoedema.

Objective We sought to conduct a pilot study of the safety and effectiveness of acupuncture in women diagnosed with chronic lymphoedema for at least 6 months and less than 5 years.

Methods Women with chronic lymphoedema (affected arm with >2 cm circumference than unaffected arm) after breast cancer surgery received acupuncture twice a week for 4 weeks. Response was defined as at least a 30% reduction in the difference in size between the affected and unaffected arms. Monthly follow-up calls for 6 months following treatment were made to obtain information about side effects.

Results Study goals were met after nine subjects were treated: four women showed at least a 30% reduction in the extent of lymphoedema at 4 weeks when compared with their respective baseline values. No serious adverse events occurred during or after 73 treatment sessions.

Limitations This pilot study requires a larger, randomised follow-up investigation plus enquiries into possible mechanisms. Both are in development by our group.

Conclusion Acupuncture appears safe and may reduce lymphoedema associated with breast cancer surgery.

This paper is freely available online under the BMJ Journals unlocked scheme, see

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  • Competing interest None.

  • Ethics approval This study was conducted with the approval of the Institutional Review Board Committee of MSKCC.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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