Background: Some patients undergoing axillary lymph node dissection (ALND) experience postoperative pain and limited range of motion associated with a palpable web of tissue extending from the axilla into the ipsilateral arm. The purpose of this study is to characterize the previously undescribed axillary web syndrome (AWS).
Methods: To identify patients with AWS, a retrospective review was performed of all invasive breast cancer patients treated by a single surgeon (REM) between 1980 and 1996. Records were also reviewed of 4 more recent patients who developed AWS after undergoing sentinel node lymph node dissection (SLND) without ALND.
Results: Among 750 sequentially treated patients, 44 (6%) developed AWS between 1 and 8 weeks after their axillary procedure. The palpable subcutaneous cords extended from the axillary crease down the ipsilateral arm, across the antecubital space, and in severe cases down to the base of the thumb. The web was associated with pain and limited shoulder abduction (< or = 90 degrees in 74% of patients). AWS resolved in all cases within 2 to 3 months. AWS also occurred after SLND. Tissue sampling of webs in 4 patients showed occlusion in lymphatic and venous channels.
Conclusions: AWS is a self-limiting cause of morbidity in the early postoperative period. More limited axillary surgery, with less lymphovenous disruption, might reduce the severity and incidence of this syndrome, although SLND does not eliminate its occurrence.