A comparison of four diagnostic criteria for lymphedema in a post-breast cancer population

Lymphat Res Biol. 2005;3(4):208-17. doi: 10.1089/lrb.2005.3.208.


Background: Breast cancer survivors are at life-time risk of developing lymphedema (LE). The goal of this research was to describe LE incidence over time among women treated for breast cancer.

Methods and results: Limb volume changes (LVC) were evaluated by two measurement methods, circumferences and perometry, among 118 participants followed preoperative to 12 months postdiagnosis. Four diagnostic criteria were used: 200 mL perometry LVC; 10% perometry LVC; 2 cm circumferential increase; and report of heaviness or swelling, either "now" or "in the past year." Using 200 mL, the estimated LE rate was 24% (95% CI = 17%-32%) at 6 months, and 42% (31%-53%) at 1 year. Using 10% LVC, the estimated LE rate was 8% (2%-13%) at 6 months, and 21% (12%-30%) at 1 year. Using 2 cm, the estimated LE rate was 46% (36%-56%) at 6 months, and 70% (60%-79%) at 1 year. Based on reported symptoms of heaviness or swelling, the estimated LE rate was 19% (11%-26%) at 6 months, and 40% (30-59%) at 1 year.

Conclusions: In the absence of a gold standard, we can only say that the different LE definitions are not equivalent, but cannot say which is "best". From this data, it appears that 10% LVC corresponds to a more conservative definition, whereas the 2 cm difference corresponds to a more liberal definition. These preliminary findings also document the importance of baseline (preoperative) anthropometric and symptom data and monitoring of changes over time. Further investigation of LE occurrence over an extended time period is warranted.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anthropometry
  • Breast Neoplasms / complications*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lymphedema / diagnosis*
  • Lymphedema / epidemiology
  • Survivors