The objective of this study was to determine the effectiveness of early physiotherapy in reducing the risk of secondary lymphoedema after surgery for breast cancer. 120 women who had breast surgery involving dissection of axillary lymph nodes participated. The early physiotherapy group was treated by a physiotherapist with a physiotherapy programme including manual lymph drainage, massage of scar tissue, and progressive active and action assisted shoulder exercises. This group also received an educational strategy. The control group received the educational strategy only. 116 women completed the one year follow-up. Of these, 18 developed secondary lymphoedema (16%): 14 in the control group (25%) and four in the intervention group (7%). The difference was significant (P=0.01); risk ratio 0.28 (95% confidence interval 0.10 to 0.79). A survival analysis showed a significant difference, with secondary lymphoedema being diagnosed four times earlier in the control group than in the intervention group (intervention/control, hazard ratio 0.26, 95% confidence interval 0.09 to 0.79).
Early physiotherapy could be an effective intervention in the prevention of secondary lymphoedema in women for at least one year after surgery for breast cancer involving dissection of axillary lymph nodes.