Gamma Knife Radiation Therapy Side Effects: Immediate vs. Delayed

Part of preparing for any medical procedure involves understanding the possible side effects that could occur afterward. Having an idea of what to expect can help eliminate some of the stress you may be feeling, letting you focus your energy elsewhere. The following information will explain the different side effects that can occur following Gamma Knife radiosurgery. In particular, it highlights the difference between immediate and delayed effects that you may experience following your treatment.

What is Gamma Knife Radiosurgery?

Before discussing the immediate and delayed Gamma Knife Radiation Therapy side effects, it may be helpful to understand more about the procedure itself. You may be interested to know that Gamma Knife radiosurgery doesn’t involve any scalpels, incisions or surgery. Rather, it’s an advanced form of radiation therapy that doesn’t even require a hospital stay.

Gamma Knife radiation therapy is a form of stereotactic radiosurgery that was developed specifically for treating conditions of the head, neck and brain. During the procedure, 192 individual beams of high-dose radiation are directed to the area of interest, which can be as small as 0.15 mm, or the width of a human hair. This is in stark contrast to traditional whole-brain radiation, which doses the entire brain, leading to the unpleasant side effects commonly associated with radiation therapy.

Gamma Knife radiosurgery takes place in an outpatient setting, with no overnight hospital stay. Most patients are back home within a few hours of completing the procedure. The treatment takes from 15 minutes to just over an hour, depending on the area and condition treated. Recovery typically brief and mild, with patients able to return to normal activities (including work) within a day or two.

What Conditions Can Be Treated with Gamma Knife Radiosurgery?

Gamma Knife radiosurgery is used specifically for treating conditions affecting the brain, head or neck. These include:

It’s important to understand that Gamma Knife radiosurgery may not be an option for all patients. However, over 1 million patients have had their conditions treated, and you may be a candidate as well. Patients who may benefit from Gamma Knife radiosurgery include:

  • People who have been unsuccessfully treated using other methods
  • People who cannot undergo surgery because of increased risks
  • People who require combination therapy, such as surgery followed by Gamma Knife radiosurgery
  • People who prefer a minimally invasive treatment option

What Are Common Gamma Knife Radiation Therapy Side Effects?

Part of the treatment planning process includes discussing possible risks and benefits of all of your options with your doctor. During this conversation, your doctor will make treatment recommendations based on your individual condition and overall health. However, it can be helpful to understand the possible side effects on a broad level before discussing what you may need to anticipate in your case.

Generally speaking, two types of side effects can occur after Gamma Knife radiation therapy: immediate and delayed effects. Immediate effects are those which occur immediately following treatment, and delayed effects occur after a passage of time. It’s important to understand both so you can know what to expect as you recover and what your doctor may be looking for at your follow-up visit.

Immediate Side Effects Following Gamma Knife Radiosurgery

Some patients will experience side effects for the first day or two following Gamma Knife radiation therapy. These include fatigue, nausea and headache. These are typically transient and mild. However, your doctor can prescribe medications to help manage any  discomfort if necessary.

Some patients experience mild soreness or swelling of the scalp where the headframe was attached. The skin may also be red or irritated within the treatment area. These side effects don’t typically occur but can be managed by your doctor if they do and will dissipate within a few days.

Delayed Effects Following Gamma Knife Radiosurgery

You will be scheduled for  follow-up visits with your doctor. At these appointments, he or she will monitor for possible swelling of the brain in the area of treatment based on a repeat MRI. This is a potential delayed side effect following Gamma Knife radiation therapy which typically occurs around six months after the procedure. If this occurs, your doctor will prescribe you a medication to resolve the issue within a short period of time.

For some trigeminal neuralgia patients, an additional delayed side effect that may occur is facial numbness. This numbness may be transient or permanent but is not a common risk in treating other conditions.

Speak with Your Doctor

It’s important to learn about the possible side effects of Gamma Knife radiation therapy specific to you and your condition. Now that you know more about the side effects that may occur, continue the discussion with your doctor to see which apply to your particular case. Understanding the risks and benefits of any procedure is an important part of the treatment planning process. Knowing what to expect afterward can help you rest easy moving forward, and your doctor will be the best person to help set your mind at ease.

Anthony D’Ambrosio, M.D., M.B.A., F.A.A.N.S
Anthony D’Ambrosio, M.D., M.B.A., F.A.A.N.S
Dr. Anthony D’Ambrosio is a board-certified neurosurgeon that specializes in Neurosurgery, Stereotactic Radiosurgery, Gamma Knife Radiosurgery (GKRS) and more. He is the Director of Neurosurgery and Co-Director of the Gamma Knife Program at The Valley Hospital. Dr. D’Ambrosio is an expert in treating patients with trigeminal neuralgia, benign or malignant brain tumors, as well as many other neurological conditions.

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