WEDNESDAY, Jan. 13, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- A common complication of breast cancer surgery can be prevented or reduced if patients receive physical therapy, including massage and shoulder exercises, soon after their operation, a new study suggests.
Secondary lymphedema -- caused by damage to the lymphatic system during treatment -- results in fluid retention and arm swelling. It affects 71 percent of patients within 12 months of breast cancer surgery and can cause disfigurement, anxiety, depression and emotional distress.
Maria Torres Lacomba, a professor of physiotherapy at Alcala de Henares University in Madrid, Spain, and colleagues selected 120 women who had breast cancer surgery involving removal of lymph nodes and divided them into two groups -- an intervention group that received early physiotherapy and education, and a control group that received education only. Both programs lasted three weeks and the patients were followed up four weeks after surgery and again three, six and 12 months after surgery.
The therapy included lymph drainage, scar tissue massage and shoulder exercises supervised by a physiotherapist. The education program included materials about the lymphatic system and advice on how to avoid injury and prevent infection.
After one year, 7 percent of women in the intervention group and 25 percent of those in the control group developed secondary lymphedema. The researchers also found that secondary lymphedema was diagnosed four times earlier in the control group than in the intervention group, according to the report published online Jan. 12 in the BMJ.
Further research is needed to determine whether early physical therapy after breast cancer surgery offers longer-term protection against secondary lymphedema, the researchers said.
The American Cancer Society has more about breast cancer patients and lymphedema.