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Lymphat Res Biol. 2003;1(2):121-32.

Impairment of lymph drainage in subfascial compartment of forearm in breast cancer-related lymphedema.

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  • 1Department of Medicine, St George's Hospital Medical School, London. astanton@sghms.ac.uk



In arm lymphedema secondary to axillary surgery and radiotherapy (breast cancer-related lymphedema), the swelling is largely epifascial and lymph flow per unit epifascial volume is impaired. The subfascial muscle compartment is not measurably swollen despite the iatrogenic damage to its axillary drainage pathway, but this could be due to its low compliance. Our aim was to test the hypothesis that subfascial lymph drainage too is impaired.


Quantitative lymphoscintigraphy was used to measure the removal rate constant (local lymph flow per unit distribution volume) for technetium-99m-human immunoglobulin G injected intramuscularly in the forearms of nine women with unilateral lymphedema. The removal rate constant was on average 31% lower in the ipsilateral swollen forearm than in the contralateral forearm (swollen arm: -0.096+/-0.041% min(-1), contralateral arm: -0.138+/-0.037% min(-1); mean+/-SD, p = 0.037). The decrease in subfascial rate constant correlated strongly with increase in arm volume (r = -0.88, p = 0.002), even though the swelling is mainly epifascial. There was no convincing evidence of dermal backflow.


Lymph flow in the subfascial muscle compartment is decreased in breast cancer-related lymphedema. The correlation between impairment of subfascial drainage and epifascial arm swelling could be because both depend on the severity of axillary damage, or because loss of function in subfascial lymphatics impairs drainage from the epifascial to the subfascial system.

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