Easing Lymphedema

There is only one standard treatment for lymphedema – a 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.

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 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.

To learn more about Ridner’s work on lymphedema, watch