Manual lymphatic drainage treatment for lymphedema: a systematic review of the literature

Belinda Thompson*, Katrina Gaitatzis, Xanne Janse de Jonge, Robbie Blackwell, Louise A. Koelmeyer

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    59 Citations (Scopus)


    Purpose: Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) massage is widely accepted as a conservative treatment for lymphedema. This systematic review aims to examine the methodologies used in recent research and evaluate the effectiveness of MLD for those at-risk of or living with lymphedema. Methods: The electronic databases Embase, PubMed, CINAHL Complete and Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials were searched using relevant terms. Studies comparing MLD with another intervention or control in patients at-risk of or with lymphedema were included. Studies were critically appraised with the PEDro scale. Results: Seventeen studies with a total of 867 female and two male participants were included. Only studies examining breast cancer-related lymphedema were identified. Some studies reported positive effects of MLD on volume reduction, quality of life and symptom-related outcomes compared with other treatments, while other studies reported no additional benefit of MLD as a component of complex decongestive therapy. In patients at-risk, MLD was reported to reduce incidence of lymphedema in some studies, while others reported no such benefits. Conclusions: The reviewed articles reported conflicting findings and were often limited by methodological issues. This review highlights the need for further experimental studies on the effectiveness of MLD in lymphedema. Implications for Cancer Survivors: There is some evidence that MLD in early stages following breast cancer surgery may help prevent progression to clinical lymphedema. MLD may also provide additional benefits in volume reduction for mild lymphedema. However, in moderate to severe lymphedema, MLD may not provide additional benefit when combined with complex decongestive therapy.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)244-258
    Number of pages15
    JournalJournal of Cancer Survivorship
    Issue number2
    Early online date15 Aug 2020
    Publication statusPublished - Apr 2021


    • Breast cancer
    • Lymphatic therapy
    • Lymphedema
    • Manual lymphatic drainage


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