The impact of monitoring techniques on progression to chronic breast cancer-related lymphedema: a meta-analysis comparing bioimpedance spectroscopy versus circumferential measurements

Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2021 Feb;185(3):709-740. doi: 10.1007/s10549-020-05988-6. Epub 2020 Nov 27.


Background: Chronic breast cancer-related lymphedema (BCRL) is a potentially serious complication following treatment. Monitoring for progression to BCRL may allow for earlier detection and intervention, reducing the rate of progression to chronic BCRL. Therefore, the purpose of this meta-analysis is to evaluate the impact of monitoring techniques on the incidence of chronic BCRL among patients monitored by bioimpedance spectroscopy (BIS) and circumference as compared to background rates.

Methods: Eligible peer-reviewed studies from PubMed, CINHAL, or Google Scholar that were published in English from 2013 onward and conducted in North America, Europe, or Oceania. Incidence rates abstracted from studies were classified by BCRL monitoring method: background (no standardized BIS or circumference assessments), BIS or circumference. A random-effects model was used to calculate a pooled annualized estimate of BCRL incidence while accounting for clinical and methodological heterogeneity. Subgroup analyses examined differences in duration of follow-up as well as breast and axillary surgery.

Results: 50 studies were included, representing over 67,000 women. The annualized incidence of BCRL was 4.9% (95% CI: 4.3-5.5) for background studies (n = 35), 1.5% (95% CI: 0.6-2.4) for BIS-monitored studies (n = 7), and 7.7% (95% CI: 5.6-9.8) for circumference-monitored studies (n = 11). The cumulative BCRL incidence rate in BIS-monitored patients was 3.1% as compared to 12.9% with background monitoring (69% reduction) and 17.0% with circumference-monitored patients (81% reduction).

Conclusions: Evidence suggests that monitoring with BIS allowing for early intervention significantly reduces the relative risk of chronic BCRL with a 69% and 81% reduction compared to background and circumference, respectively. Circumference monitoring did not appear to provide a benefit with respect to chronic BCRL incidence. Based on these results, BIS should be considered for BCRL screening in order to detect subclinical BCRL and reduce rates of chronic BCRL, particularly in high-risk patients.

Keywords: Axillary dissection; Bioimpedance; Breast cancer; Lymphedema.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Axilla
  • Breast Cancer Lymphedema* / diagnosis
  • Breast Cancer Lymphedema* / epidemiology
  • Breast Cancer Lymphedema* / etiology
  • Breast Neoplasms* / complications
  • Breast Neoplasms* / epidemiology
  • Europe
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lymphedema* / diagnosis
  • Lymphedema* / epidemiology
  • Lymphedema* / etiology
  • Spectrum Analysis