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   Table of Contents     
Year : 2021  |  Volume : 14  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 3-17
Managing lymphedema, increasing range of motion, and quality of life through yoga therapy among breast cancer survivors: A systematic review

1 Yoga Vahini Foundation, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
2 Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
3 Fenivi Research Solutions, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

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Date of Submission21-Sep-2019
Date of Decision16-Jul-2020
Date of Acceptance10-Aug-2020
Date of Web Publication05-Feb-2021


Lymphedema is a common complication of breast cancer treatment. Yoga is a nonconventional and noninvasive intervention that is reported to show beneficial effects in patients with breast cancer-related lymphedema (BCRL). This study attempted to systematically review the effect of yoga therapy on managing lymphedema, increasing the range of motion (ROM), and quality of life (QOL) among breast cancer survivors. The review search included studies from electronic bibliographic databases, namely Medline (PubMed), Embase, and Google Scholar till June 2019. Studies which assessed the outcome variables such as QOL and management of lymphedema or related physical symptoms as effect of yoga intervention were considered for review. Two authors individually reviewed, selected according to Cochrane guidelines, and extracted the articles using Covidence software. Screening process of this review resulted in a total of seven studies. The different styles of yoga employed in the studies were Iyengar yoga (n = 2), Satyananda yoga (n = 2), Hatha yoga (n = 2), and Ashtanga yoga (n = 1). The length of intervention and post intervention analysis ranged from 8 weeks to 12 months. Four studies included home practice sessions. QOL, ROM, and musculoskeletal symptoms showed improvement in all the studies. Yoga could be a safe and feasible exercise intervention for BCRL patients. Evidence generated from these studies was of moderate strength. Further long-term clinical trials with large sample size are essential for the development and standardization of yoga intervention guidelines for BCRL patients.

Keywords: Arm function, arm volume, breast cancer survivors, grip strength, secondary arm lymphedema, symptom management

How to cite this article:
Saraswathi V, Latha S, Niraimathi K, Vidhubala E. Managing lymphedema, increasing range of motion, and quality of life through yoga therapy among breast cancer survivors: A systematic review. Int J Yoga 2021;14:3-17

How to cite this URL:
Saraswathi V, Latha S, Niraimathi K, Vidhubala E. Managing lymphedema, increasing range of motion, and quality of life through yoga therapy among breast cancer survivors: A systematic review. Int J Yoga [serial online] 2021 [cited 2023 Mar 21];14:3-17. Available from:

   Introduction Top

The most commonly diagnosed cancer in women worldwide is breast cancer, accounting for 21%.[1] Although breast cancer treatments such as surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and hormonal therapy have improved patient outcomes, these techniques cause patients to potentially suffer substantial adverse effects.[2] One of the chief complications due to treatments is lymphedema which is a chronic health problem. Breast cancer-related lymphedema (BCRL) comprises of a set of pathological conditions, in which protein-rich fluid accumulates in soft tissues because of lymphatic flow interruption.[3] BCRL is an agglomeration of symptoms such as swelling of arm, decreased physical functioning and body motion, altered sensation in limbs, and fatigue accompanied by psychological stress.[4] Individual health factors of patients such as obesity or higher body mass index can increase the risk of lymphedema while infections or trauma can trigger BCRL.[5],[6],[7]

Axillary dissection and radiation therapy have been known to increase the risk of BCRL.[8] Treatment of lymphedema associated with breast cancer can include combined modality approaches, compression therapy, therapeutic exercises, and pharmacotherapy. Complete decongestive therapy is a multimodality approach and is considered the “gold standard” for lymphedema treatment. The therapy includes various techniques, such as manual lymphatic drainage, external compression garments and bandages, skin care, and exercises guided by specially trained therapists.[9],[10] It has been considered safe for BCRL patients to indulge in progressive exercise.[10] Different types of exercises including aqua training, yoga, resistance, and aerobic exercises have been employed in mitigating BCRL symptoms,[11] of which yoga has been a familiar intervention showing gradual betterment of patients.[12]

Yoga has shown positive results on treatment-related outcomes such as pain, fatigue, depression, mood, and quality of life (QOL).[13] However, the sustainability of pain relief after yoga-based intervention needs more investigation. Targeted yoga intervention programs have been proven to improve the overall sleep quality, reduced daytime functioning,[14] fatigue-related symptoms,[15] blood cortisol levels,[16] postchemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting,[17] lowered musculoskeletal problems such as muscle soreness and overall physical discomfort,[18] and reduced psychological-related symptoms such as anxiety and depression.[19] Despite a number of reports and reviews supporting efficacy of yoga in health care, the awareness and integration of yoga in conventional health care remain limited.[20] There are limited guidelines available for utilising yoga as treatment protocols for health conditions based on clinical or practice-based evidence.[21] Yoga has proven to be effective in reducing BCRL symptoms and as a lifestyle management therapy by research studies. Specific postures and breathing can help in better draining of the lymphatic fluid.[22] However, the studies have not followed any standard recommendation for managing lymphedema symptoms through yoga therapy.

Therefore, the main purpose of this review is to synthesis evidence regarding the beneficial effects of yoga intervention in lowering the BCRL symptoms and improving the QOL in breast cancer survivors.

   Methods Top

The current systematic review followed the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines and the minimum standards prototype given by the Cochrane Collaboration for reporting items. The primary outcomes of this study were the improvement in lymphedema symptoms, range of motion (ROM), and QOL of breast cancer patients with lymphedema.

Literature search

The search strategy was developed for each database based on the PICO format [Table 1]. Three databases namely PubMed (Medline), Embase, and Google Scholar were searched for articles till July 2020. References of included publications and review articles were cross-referenced to retrieve any additional relevant citations.
Table 1: Search strategy

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Inclusion criteria

The studies that assessed the outcome variables such as lymphedema-related symptoms, ROM, and QOL were included. Survival period was not a criterion for selection and all the breast cancer survivors who received any form of yoga intervention to manage lymphedema were selected. Irrespective of age group, type of yoga, duration, and setting of exercise intervention, studies were included if the main criteria was met. Studies were excluded if symptoms other than lymphedema were the primary focus. Only original and review articles published in English which were observational or interventional in nature with quantitative data were included in the review. The search was not limited to any time period.

Selection process

The studies retrieved by searching the databases were imported into the Covidence software which is a commonly used program to organize systematic research works provided by the Cochrane Collaboration.[23] The titles and abstracts of all studies were screened for relevance independently by two authors (VS, SL) to determine the eligibility. The articles were chosen if both authors agreed. In case of discrepancy, a consensus was arrived after discussion. The full text of the selected articles was then screened for eligibility by the two authors independently. In case of discrepancy, agreement was reached after deliberation.

Extraction of data

After the completion of full text screening, data from the included studies were manually extracted by the authors (VS, SL) in a template created exclusively for extracting data which included all the traits of the studies, in accordance with the Cochrane protocol. Data on disciplines such as method of the study, participant characteristics, nature of intervention, outcomes, and results were extracted and maintained from which relevant fields were tabulated.

Quality assessment of included studies

The risk of bias of included studies was evaluated by the two authors (VS, SL) independently using the National Institute of Health (NIH) guidelines for assessing the quality. Aspects of research question, study design, participants, statistical analyses, and study outcomes were scrutinized based on the twelve questions given by the NIH guidelines.[24] Based on the tool, each component of a study was given one point with a total score of 12. The scores of both the investigators were averaged to attain the absolute score for each study which determined the quality as “high,” “medium,” and “low.” Discrepancies were rechecked with a third author (KN) and consensus was achieved by discussion.

   Results Top

Selection of studies

A PRISMA diagram summarizing selection of studies is presented in [Figure 1]. The literature search identified 409 citations (79 from Medline, 268 from Embase, and 62 from Google Scholar), of which 201 studies were identified as duplicated and exempted. This resulted in 208 studies, out of which 181 studies were excluded based on the relevance after reviewing the title and abstract yielding 27 studies. Finally, eight publications from seven studies were included. Cross-referencing yielded no additional results.
Figure 1: Search results and study selection

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Risk of bias in individual studies

The risk of bias assessed by NIH quality assessment tool is summarized in [Table 2]. Five studies had moderate quality,[20],[25],[26],[27],[28] one study found to have good quality[29] and one study was in low quality.[30]
Table 2: Assessment of risk of bias according to National Institute of Health guidelines

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Summary of included studies

The summary of selected studies is presented in [Table 3]. Studies yielded were form 2011 to 2020. Out of seven studies, three studies were conducted in USA, two studies in Australia, one study in Poland, and one in Ukraine all of which were from developed countries and none from developing regions. Three studies were randomized controlled trials,[28],[29],[30] three were single group pre–posttest,[20],[26],[27] one study was controlled clinical trial,[25] and four studies were conducted at pilot level.
Table 3: Summary of the included studies

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Six studies were conducted in the urban setting and one study in the suburban setting, but none of the included studies were from the rural.

Study characteristics

The characteristics of studies and study population are presented in [Table 4]. The studies were conducted in women above 18 years of age with the mean age of participants being above 50 years and the mean or median age ranging from 52 to 65 years. The sample size ranged from 6 to 30.[26],[27],[28],[29],[30] One study was conducted in postmenopausal women[26] and one study included participants who were at high risk for BCRL.[27]
Table 4: Characteristics of the included studies

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Randomization of participants was not mentioned in studies excepting three studies which used randomized controlled trial,[28],[29],[30] out of which one study mentioned blinding the assessors who evaluated the outcome.[29] Convenience sampling was followed in three studies[20],[25],[26] where the patients were referred or volunteered to be a part of the study. Sample size estimation was done in two studies.[28],[29]

Participants currently undergoing treatment and with metastatic or recurrent cancer was a common exclusion criteria in studies.[20],[26],[27] Preexisting BCRL condition was an exclusion criterion in the study by Mazor et al.[27] Long-term investigation of the effects of yoga was conducted after 3 months,[29] 6 months,[28],[30] and 12 months in three studies.

Volumeter, handheld grip dynamometer, goniometer, perometer, and tissue tonometry were some of the tools used for recording arm measurements. Three studies used Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy-Breast,[20],[26],[28] one used QOL-Breast 23 (QLQ-BR23),[25] and one used visual analog scale (VAS)[30] to assess the QOL.

Cancer treatment

Treatments recorded in the studies were surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of treatment methods. The surgeries included lymph node dissection, breast conserving surgery, modified radical mastectomy, and total or partial mastectomy. Two studies did not report the details of the treatment received by the participants.[20],[26] One study included the survivors at risk (sentinel lymph node dissection, ALND, or axillary XRT) for lymphedema[27] and three studies included survivors with BCRL. One study did not report the status of lymphedema, however studied the arm-related symptoms.[25] Comorbidities such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and injuries in the affected area were reported in one study.[30] Four studies mentioned the use of compression sleeves,[20],[26],[29],[30] while there was no mention in three studies.[25],[27],[28]

Yoga interventions

The details of yoga interventions offered by the studies are summarized in [Appendix 1]. Two studies used Iyengar yoga,[20],[25] Satyananda yoga,[29],[30] and Hatha yoga[26],[28] each while Ashtanga yoga[27] was followed in one study. The attributes of the yoga intervention were diverse in the studies. The duration of intervention ranged from 4 to 12 months. Number of yoga sessions ranged from 8 to 144 and the duration of each session ranged from 40 to 90 min. The poses were modified based on the patient's ability in all studies. The interventions were led by trained and certified yoga therapists in all seven studies. All studies have given a detailed account of the postures and breathing techniques used for intervention except two study.[28],[30] The sessions were conducted at the center in all studies and in addition four studies had home practice as part of the intervention. In all the studies with home practice, participants were provided either with instruction manual[27],[30] or DVD.[26],[29] The adherence to the practice was assessed based on the practice log in two studies.[26],[29] One study recorded the practice log but did not report practice adherence.[26] Other studies did not report practice adherence although home practice was a component of the intervention.[27],[30]

Outcome measures

The detailed analysis of tools used and the outcome variables of the studies are presented in [Table 5]. QOL was assessed in five studies using standardized tools.[20],[25],[26],[28],[30] Pain[20],[25],[30] and ROM[27],[29] were assessed in three and two studies respectively. Spinal mobility was evaluated in one study to investigate improvements in the entire upper body movements.[29]
Table 5: Outcome variables, tools used and effect of yoga intervention on outcome variables of different studies

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Arm measurements

Grip strength evaluated in one study reported significant improvement in within limb group (mean difference [MD] [95% confidence interval (CI)]: 3.56 [1.15, 5.97], P < 0.01), in the experimental group[27] and one study reported significant difference between the control and the intervention group (MD [95%CI]: 3.58 [1.50, 5.67], P = 0.01)[29] whereas one study did not show any difference in hand grip strength (P = 0.26).[26] One study showed a significant decrease in arm volume owing to yoga exercise (P = 0.02)[26] while two studies showed statistically insignificant decrease (% reduction: 14.3, P = 0.98)[30] (MD [95% CI]: 21.68 [-75.45, 32.09]).[27] Douglass et al. also studied other parameters of BCRL in detail all of which showed insignificant results including perometry for arm volume (% reduction: 9.8, P = 0.91), tonometry of the upper arm (P = 0.80), heaviness (P = 0.86), tightness (P = 0.93), burning sensation (P = 0.85), temperature (P = 0.90), and pins and needles (P = 0.64). Galantino et al. studied the arm function as the reach, regular household activities which uses arm and showed significant improvement.[20]

Range of motion

ROM of the shoulder was studied in detail by Loudon et al. and reported insignificant reduction in both control and intervention groups with significant improvement in internal rotation of the affected arm in the intervention group (MD [95% CI]: -10.97 [-17.37, -4.56], P = 0.001). The study also evaluated the spinal ROM reported significant improvement in the angle of pelvic obliquity (MD [95% CI]: -9.96 [-14.54, -5.37], P = 0.001) but found no significant difference between groups after intervention.[29] Mazor et al. reported significant improvement in certain components of ROM such as elbow flexion (MD [95% CI]: 2.70 [1.19, 4.22]), shoulder external rotation (MD [95% CI]: 4.65 [1.70, 7.59]), shoulder flexion (MD [95% CI]: 4.50 [1.59, 7.41]), and shoulder abduction (MD [95% CI]: 2.44 [0.58, 4.29], P < 0.05).[27]


Pain was investigated in two studies before and after yoga intervention. One study did not find significant difference in pain between the group continued and discontinued yoga (P = 0.90).[30] Other study showed significant reduction in brief pain inventory (BPI) pain severity (P = 0.016) but insignificant reduction in BPI pain interference (P = 0.07).[20] One study evaluated pain, swelling, and sensitivity collectively as arm symptoms and found significant decrease (P = 0.046).[25]

Quality of life

QOL increased in studies by Andysz et al. (increase in mean within intervention group from 58.3 to 75, P = 0.048 and significant difference between intervention group (mean: 17.6) and control group (mean: 11.1), P = 0.03);[25] Galantino et al. (increase in mean from 89.33 to 106.05, P < 0.05);[20] Odynets et al. (increase in mean from 82.80 to 120.9; P < 0.01)[28] while no difference between groups was observed in study by Fisher et al.(P = 0.12).[26] Although it decreased in one study[30] in both the groups, the decline of QOL score was more in the group that discontinued yoga practice (14.3%) than in group which continued yoga (3.6%). No adverse effects were reported in any of the studies as a result of yoga intervention. Two studies which accounted adverse effects unrelated to the intervention.[27],[29] Yoga was reported as a safe tool by three studies.[20],[25],[27]

   Discussion Top

In this systematic review, the effect of yoga therapy on ROM, lymphedema symptoms, and QOL among breast cancer survivors with lymphedema has been evaluated. The consistency was found among the results of yoga having a positive effect on BCRL patients in all studies, although one study could not achieve statistical significance.[30]

In the current systematic review, sample size was not sufficiently large and was reported as a limitation in all studies and four studies were conducted at pilot levels. Although Loudon et al. calculated the sample size a priori, the study could not achieve the estimated sample size.[29] Some studies could not record significant changes in the outcome such as QOL, arm function, hand grip strength, lymphedema symptoms, and limb size after the yoga interventions owing to small sample size, measurement errors, or the comorbidity conditions as stated by the studies.[26],[30] However, individual attention was possible among the BCRL patients because of the small sample size. The current review also agrees with a recent systematic review conducted among BCRL patients that there was no uniformity in the duration, type, and intensity among the selected studies.[31]

There were variations in the studies with respect to the usage of compression sleeves in the yoga intervention groups. Early intervention using compression sleeves and its long-term usage have shown to improve the symptoms in BCRL patients.[32],[33] Whether or not the participants consistently wore the compression sleeve was not mentioned in any of the studies in this review. Thus, manipulation of this extrinsic variable specific to BCRL condition should not be overlooked as it could affect the consistency of results considerably. It has been found that breast cancer survivors with lymphedema were more in need of psychological counseling than those without, which is a direct implication on the QOL of BCRL patients.[34] The studies in this review used specific QOL tools except one study which used VAS[30] to assess QOL. On the contrary, a review study by Fu et al. identified the use of overall HRQOL tool in most studies than the disease-specific QOL tool.[35]

The precision of breathing or meditative techniques and the focus on postures may differ during supervision and at home practice in naive practitioners. In studies with home practice sessions, supply of reference material (instruction manual or DVD) to the participants becomes important to improve their adherence in future.[21] Practicing using video aid is much easier and less laborious than practicing from illustrated aids. Practice adherence among BCRL patients was discussed by two studies in this review.[26],[29] Adherence plays a vital role in bringing out the desired health outcomes,[36] which in the case of BCRL condition is better arm symptoms and improvements in daily activities increasing the QOL. Factors such as age and gender have not been found to be significantly associated with adherence of yoga practice; however, mood, social support, perceived health benefits, and motivation have been associated with adherence in behavioral interventions.[36] Douglass et al.[30] and Loudan et al.[29] stated orienting the participants at the beginning of the study about management of symptoms, self-care, and importance of exercise. This may also influence the adherence as it is essential to convince participants to incorporate yoga into their daily routine. These two were the only studies in this review to also conduct a long-term research. It could be inferred from this review that longitudinal researches on the effect of yoga on BCRL patients are limited. Further long-term studies are necessary to understand the compliance, reminiscence of the learned techniques, and quality of self-practice.

Yoga as intervention for health conditions has often been implicated as postures combined with breathing techniques,[37] which is also observed from the studies in this review. In yoga intervention, not merely the accuracy of techniques, but the subjective experience of the individual is also important. The studies have not mentioned the rationale (e.g. practice of asanas coordinated with breathing is more comfortable to train the movements in arms and chest than doing a posture focusing on form) or specific goals (e.g. strengthening, flexibility, improving ROM or calmness) of exercises which it aims to achieve during the course of intervention. Such knowledge will help in better comprehension in the participants and reflect in their attitude and practice.

From the studies included in this review, it could be inferred that yoga intervention session of 60 min daily for a minimum of 8 weeks could produce beneficial effects in BCRL symptoms. The conclusion of clinical practice obtained from this study is similar to a recent review conducted on yoga intervention among BCRL patients.[31] Owing to its diversity and complexity of the multiple dimensions, it is challenging to determine the combination of components of yoga to bring about the desired health benefit.[37] Loundan et al. published guidelines for yoga intervention in BCRL patients but this is based on Satyananda yoga.[38] As the various styles of yoga concentrate on different aspects, guidelines for health conditions should be developed individually for specific styles of yoga.[21] Further detailed research is necessary to conceive evidence-based guidelines for BCRL condition.

   Conclusion Top

Evidence of moderate robustness was generated from these studies to affirm the safety and efficacy of yoga intervention in managing lymphedema of breast cancer survivors. QOL and survival improved in the patients even with a short duration of the intervention demonstrating its usefulness in coping lymphedema. Only one standard guideline with specifications for duration, frequency, and intensity targeting BCRL is available for till date. Large sample-sized trials should be conducted to investigate practice adherence and to synthesize robust evidence to incorporate yoga into routine clinical practice.


The authors acknowledge Mrs. Noorul Fathima, Dr. Femil Surendran and Ms. Malini H Madhav for their technical support in this article.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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Correspondence Address:
Vasudevan Saraswathi
Yoga Vahini Foundation, Lakshmi Nilayam Apartments, 19th Street, AGS Colony, Kottivakkam, Chennai - 600 041, Tamil Nadu
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ijoy.IJOY_73_19

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