Can Acupuncture be a Part of the Treatment for Breast Cancer-Related Lymphedema? A Systematic Review of the Safety and Proposed Model for Care

Lymphology. 2023;56(1):27-39.


Acupuncture is a potential therapy for breast cancer-related lymphedema (BCRL). Despite a recent meta-analysis on efficacy, data on acupuncture safety in BCRL are lacking. Current clinical guidelines recommend avoiding needling in the upper extremity affected by lymph node dissection. We undertook a systematic review focusing on acupuncture safety and treatment protocols in clinical trials for BCRL. Literature searches were conducted in PubMed, Ovid, CINAHL, and Cochrane library. Eight clinical trials on acupuncture for BCRL were analyzed. The Standards of Acupuncture intervention (STRICTA 2010) and Cochrane risk of bias (RoB2 2019) were applied to assess methods for acupuncture interventions within Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) framework. Quantity and severity of adverse events (AE) were reviewed. A total of 189 subjects participated in 8 clinical trials with 2965 acupuncture treatments. No serious adverse events (SAE) were reported regardless of treatment laterality or protocol, with only a single grade 2 skin infection in 2,965 total treatments (0.034%), including 1,165 bilateral and 225 ipsilateral treatments. Our comprehensive review of clinical trials of acupuncture for BCRL demonstrated no significant adverse events in 2,965 treatments, including 1,390 in the affected limb. An approach for routine integration of acupuncture into BCRL maintenance therapy is proposed.

Keywords: acupuncture; breast cancer; complete decongestive therapy; lymphedema; safety.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Acupuncture Therapy* / adverse effects
  • Acupuncture Therapy* / methods
  • Breast Cancer Lymphedema* / etiology
  • Breast Cancer Lymphedema* / therapy
  • Breast Neoplasms* / complications
  • Breast Neoplasms* / therapy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lymphedema* / etiology
  • Lymphedema* / therapy
  • Upper Extremity