The Benefits of Treating Lymphedema with Acupuncture

The lymphatic system’s function is to remove waste fluids to the bloodstream so that they can be collected and excreted from the body by the kidneys. Lymphedema (sometimes called Lymphoedema, and a shortened form of “Lymphatic Edema”), describes the condition of localized fluid retention and tissue swelling as the result of a compromised lymphatic system.

Lymphedema can be caused by various genetic conditions, by aging, or as a result of another condition or disease. Lymphedema is especially common following treatments for breast cancer. Lymph nodes in the armpit may be damaged by chemotherapy or may be removed along with the cancerous breast tissue when surgery is performed. Lymph node removal often causes lymphatic fluid buildup and swelling in the arms. A similar effect may occur in the legs or feet, or less commonly, elsewhere in the body, depending on which specific nodes in the lymphatic system have been damaged.

The fluid build-up causes painful swelling, which can inhibit range of motion and can permanently damage surrounding tissues. As the protein-rich fluids build up, oxygen availability is reduced, interfering with the body’s ability to heal and can lead to eventual necrosis. These tissues, suffused with waste fluids, act as a welcoming growth medium for bacteria, resulting in a very high risk for infection.

While there is currently no cure for lymphedema, it can be treated symptomatically. Conventional treatments include manual lymph drainage, the use of compression garments like long sleeves or stockings, or surgical intervention.

The symptoms of lymphedema can also be treated effectively by less aggressive and less invasive means. For example, acupuncture has been shown to be remarkably effective in treating the symptoms of lymphedema.

Acupuncture Has Been Proven to Be an Effective Treatment Option for Lymphedema

A clinical trial performed by researchers at Nanjing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine found that acupuncture was effective in treating several symptoms of lymphoedema in the arms of breast cancer patients (BCRL, or “breast cancer related lymphedema”). (Yao et al., 2016)

Acupuncture was demonstrably able to reduce the circumference, by decreasing swelling, of the upper arm, elbow, and forearm. It was also responsible for seriously improving the range of motion of the rotator cuff and the articulation of the arm in general. The patients in the trial who received the acupuncture treatments (thirty minute sessions, every second day for thirty days) also self-reported significant improvement in their overall quality of life.

The control group was given Diosmin, a medicine used in the treatment of BCRL and other conditions.

At the conclusion of the trial, acupuncture was shown to be twice as effective as the medicine.

These results were more or less confirmed, independently, by Cassileth et al., in a comparable study, and were also in line with the findings of yet a third study conducted by researchers at the Daegu Catholic University Medical Center, in Korea. (Young et al., 2015.) Those researchers were quoted as saying “The basic strategy of treating illness with Saam acupuncture is to harmonize these interruptions manifested by Stagnation and irregularities, or imbalances caused by Deficiency and Excess.”

Risks of Secondary Infection?

Although some patients are concerned about the risk of secondary infection from the insertion of acupuncture needles into the damaged tissues, the risk is in fact very minimal. Acupuncturists are highly trained and experienced and are mindful of those parts of the body that may be susceptible to damage or infection. The needles are inserted into particular pressure points or zones on the body to promote healing elsewhere. For example, the shoulder contains a number of points which could affect changes throughout the rest of the arm.

Indeed, the risk of infection from any acupuncture treatment is virtually nonexistent. It’s generally considered to be a wholly non-invasive procedure.

Schedule an Acupuncture Appointment at Advanced Health

Andrew Castellanos is a licensed acupuncturist, with a Master’s Degree from AIMC in Berkley, in Traditional Chinese Medicine. He treats the symptoms of lymphedema with acupuncture, as well as soft tissue mobilization, various forms of massage, or other means, leveraging his experience in both Eastern and Western body philosophies.

Advanced Health practices integrative and functional medicine, treating the body holistically and considering the interconnection that underpins each system. Acupuncture can treat lymphedema by not only addressing the lymphatic system, but also by targeting areas in the body that assist in decreasing inflammation, increasing tissue oxidation, aid in detoxification, and supporting general wellness. Additionally, by stimulating the release of certain chemical transmitters, acupuncture is able to support the body in reducing and mitigating the symptoms of lymphedema, decreasing the risk of further tissue damage or injury, and improving quality of life.

If you’re suffering from lymphedema or other inflammatory conditions, contact Andrew Castellanos and Advanced Health to arrange a consultation.


  1. Yao, Y. Xu, L. Chen, et al (2016). Effects of warm acupuncture on breast cancer-related chronic lymphedema: a randomized controlled trial. Curr Oncol. 2016 Feb; 23(1): e27-e34.

Young Ju Jeong, Hyo Jung Kwon, et al (2015). Treatment of Lymphedema with Saam Acupuncture in Patients with Breast Cancer: A Pilot Study. Med Acupunct. 2015 Jun 1; 27(3): 206-215.

Barrie R. Cassileth, Kimberly J. Van Zee, et al (2013). Acupuncture in the treatment of upper-limb lymphedema. Cancer, 119: 2455–2461.

Andrew Castellanos, L.Ac. Andrew Castellanos, L.Ac. is a licensed acupuncturist with a Masters Degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine from AIMC in Berkeley.

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