November 6, 2009

Laser treatment studied to ease lymphedema

Sheila Ridner, Ph.D.

Laser treatment studied to ease lymphedema

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.

Ridner became interested in this topic while chairing a lymphedema

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

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

“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.