Early arm swelling after breast surgery: changes on both sides

  • Terry P. HainesEmail author
  • Patricia Sinnamon



Lymphedema is a common complication of treatment for breast cancer. However, little information is available describing changes in upper limb volumes in the early stages following surgery.


Study design: Retrospective audit.

Participants: Women who underwent unilateral mastectomy or axillary node removal for breast cancer at the Princess Alexandra Hospital, Brisbane, Australia.

Measurements: Circumferential measurements taken at 10 cm intervals from the ulnar styloid on each arm were converted to segmental volumes using the frustum approach.

Procedure: Pre-surgery baseline measures were taken by a physiotherapist at Preadmission Clinic at the Princess Alexandra Hospital. Follow-up measures were taken 6 weeks after surgery by Domiciliary Allied Health Acute Care and Rehabilitation Service physiotherapists in patients’ homes.


Limb segment volumes increased in the proximal upper limb segments at follow-up. The proportion of patients with a 10% or greater increase in volume in one or more segments of their upper limb were similar for ipsilateral (35%) and contralateral (32%) sides (to side of surgery), respectively. No significant interaction between time and arm (ipsilateral versus contralateral) was identified.


These findings demonstrate that limb segment volume changes affect a greater proportion of patients during the first 6 weeks following surgery than previously recorded. They also indicate that flow of lymph from the side of surgery to the contralateral side may disperse lymph between sides during this early post-operative period. This has implications for how swelling is measured during this period and strategies to prevent onset of lymphedema.


Lymphedema Breast cancer Incidence Risk factors 



The authors would like to thank the physiotherapists of the Domiciliary Allied Health Acute Care and Rehabilitation Service (DAART), Brisbane, Australia for their contribution to data collection.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia
  2. 2.Physiotherapy DepartmentGARU, Princess Alexandra HospitalWoolloongabbaAustralia

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