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Laser Treatment Studied to Ease Lymphedema

November 10, 2009


Many breast cancer patients clear the first hurdles of chemotherapy and surgery only to face another little-known hurdle — lymphedema.

There is currently only one standard treatment for this chronic condition in which the lymph drainage system is compromised and fluid accumulates in the body, but Sheila Ridner, Ph.D., M.S.N., is investigating a promising laser treatment.

Ridner, assistant professor at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, has been awarded a $50,000 grant from the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) to study how different types of lymphedema treatment impact symptoms, quality of life and arm swelling.

Sheila Ridner, Ph.D., M.S.N.

Sheila Ridner, Ph.D., M.S.N.

Ridner became interested in this topic while chairing a lymphedema special interest group for ONS.

“We assisted ONS in development of a card on the current state of science in lymphedema treatment. Current treatment is Complete Decongestive Therapy, of which massage therapy called manual lymph drainage is the major component, but I wondered if there was a better way,” she said.

So Ridner teamed up with fellow ONS member Ellen Poage, M.S.N., who practices at Rehabilitation Associates of Naples, in Florida. The clinic had recently purchased a laser therapy system, and after six weeks of use was seeing significant reduction in arm swelling.

The study will randomize 90 participants at the Florida clinic into three groups — laser treatment only, manual lymph drainage only and a combination of both. It will also work to determine effective doses of laser treatment.

“Manual lymph drainage lightly massages the body to open lymph channels to drain away from where fluid accumulates. It is not a cure, it just reduces volume. The laser likely stimulates the lymph system itself. Lymph moves more efficiently,” Ridner explained.

The laser therapy system has advantages over manual lymph drainage. The laser is FDA approved and could potentially be used at home by lymphedema patients. The handheld device is easy to apply, especially for elderly patients who often lack the dexterity for massage, and the treatment is painless.

“Lasers have been used for wound healing and sports injuries for years. The concept that they could be helpful in wound healing is not new, but lymphedema treatment is a new application of the technology,” Ridner said. “There are people who may think this is quackery, but that’s why we do research.”

Though the trial is conducted in Florida, Ridner is able to see the data in real time as it is collected. Once the two-year pilot is complete, Ridner said she will review the data and determine the next steps, but early results indicate that the laser treatment could yield dramatic results for lymphedema patients.


  1. Are there any studies in Houston? If not how do we get one? Very interested!!.
    Thank you

    Comment by D. Kirby — January 26, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

  2. I would recommend that you check with our colleagues at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. In the meantime, we’ll check with the investigators here to see what we can find out for you.

    Thank you for viewing our site and taking time to comment.

    Take care,
    Cynthia Floyd Manley
    Associate Director for Communications

    Comment by Cynthia Manley — January 27, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

  3. Is any work with laser therapy being done for patients with lower extremity lymphedema?

    Comment by N. Menke — January 30, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

  4. We have sent your question to our colleagues in the School of Nursing. Hope to have an answer soon. Thanks for the question.

    Comment by Cynthia Manley — February 7, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  5. How do I enroll, I will travel to Florida. Any chance a study could be done in Omaha, Ne.

    Comment by Pat Harrison — October 3, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

  6. Pat, we aren’t sure about whether there might be something similar offered in your area, but will check with the principal investigator to see what she knows.

    Comment by Cynthia Manley — October 7, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

  7. Would be very interested in finding out if there are any such studies being done in the Denver, CO, area. My edematous arm is now at the stage where the fluids are becoming fibrotic, and painful. Laser therapy has been suggested by others, and I am wondering where I can get that therapy.

    Thanks for your website and your input.
    Tracy Howard

    Comment by Tracy Howard — December 5, 2010 @ 1:39 am

  8. Tracy, we have shared your information with pur colleagues at the School of Nursing. Take care!

    Comment by Cynthia Manley — December 6, 2010 @ 11:16 am

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