Self-Care for Management of Secondary Lymphedema: A Systematic Review

Citation: Douglass J, Graves P, Gordon S (2016) Self-Care for Management of Secondary Lymphedema: A Systematic Review. PLoS Negl Trop Dis 10(6): e0004740. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0004740
Published: June 8, 2016

LymphedemaBackground: Lymphedema is a debilitating and disfiguring sequela of an overwhelmed lymphatic system. The most common causes of secondary lymphedema are lymphatic filariasis (LF), a vector-borne, parasitic disease endemic in 73 tropical countries, and treatment for cancer in developed countries. Lymphedema is incurable and requires life-long care so identification of effective lymphedema management is imperative to improve quality of life, reduce the burden on family resources and benefit the local community. This review was conducted to evaluate the evidence for effective lymphedema self-care strategies that might be applicable to management of all types of secondary lymphedema.
Methodology/Principal Findings: Searches were conducted in Medline, CINAHL and Scopus databases in March 2015. Included studies reported before and after measures of lymphedema status or frequency of acute infections. The methodological quality was assessed using the appropriate Critical Appraisal Skills Program checklist. Descriptive synthesis and meta-analysis were used to evaluate effectiveness of the outcomes reported. Twenty-eight papers were included; two RCTs were found to have strong methodology, and overall 57% of studies were rated as methodologically weak. Evidence from filariasis-related lymphedema (FR-LE) studies indicated that hygiene-centred self-care reduced the frequency and duration of acute episodes by 54%, and in cancer-related lymphedema (CR-LE) home-based exercise including deep breathing delivered significant volume reductions over standard self-care alone. Intensity of training in self-care practices and frequency of monitoring improved outcomes. Cultural and economic factors and access to health care services influenced the type of intervention delivered and how outcomes were measured.
Conclusions/Significance: There is evidence to support the adoption of remedial exercises in the management of FR-LE and for a greater emphasis on self-treatment practices for people with CR-LE. Empowerment of people with lymphedema to care for themselves with access to supportive professional assistance has the capacity to optimise self-management practices and improve outcomes from limited health resources.

Author Summary: Secondary lymphedema is a major cause of disability worldwide. The most common causes are treatment for cancer or infection with lymphatic filariasis. In both cases, the lymphatic system is damaged and unable to perform its normal function of removing extracellular fluid and wastes. Protein rich fluid accumulates in the affected area, and if left untreated may progress to ‘elephantiasis’, which is characterised by a grossly enlarged limb and thickening of the skin. Lymphedema is incurable, requires lifelong care, and psychosocial support, but early intervention and good self-management practices can halt progression, preserve quality of life and maintain the ability to participate in normal work and social activities. Current approaches to treatment vary depending on the setting. In developed countries, cancer related lymphoedema is therapist-based and aims to intervene early and prevent disease progression. Lymphatic filariasis related lymphedema is associated with poverty, affecting people living in developing countries where minimal intervention is recommended or available for early stages. By identifying useful practices that can be transferred across cultural and economic borders, people living with lymphedema can be empowered to care for themselves and improve their long term outcomes.


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