Does Gamma Knife Radiosurgery Differ From Radiation?

There is sometimes confusion surrounding the differences between Gamma Knife radiosurgery and radiation therapy. This is understandable, as it’s true that both use therapeutic forms of radiation. However, the ways in which the radiation is delivered and the concentrations in which they are given are much different. Luckily, what separates the two treatments is fairly broad. This post will explore how Gamma Knife radiosurgery differs from radiation therapy.

About Gamma Knife Radiosurgery

The term “surgery” here is perhaps a bit of a misnomer. Gamma Knife radiosurgery isn’t actually surgery in the traditional sense, as no incisions are made. The reason it’s been dubbed “surgery” is due to the precision with which the radiation can be targeted on even the tiniest of areas, much like the ability of a neurosurgeon with fine manual dexterity.

Gamma Knife radiosurgery involves using nearly 200 tiny beams of low-concentration radiation that, when focused on a specific point, combine to create an adequate dose of radiation to treat the problem. The beauty of Gamma Knife radiosurgery is that it can access areas in the brain and cervical spinal area (upper neck) that would otherwise be difficult, if not impossible, to access through traditional surgical procedures. This makes Gamma Knife especially effective for lesions, nerve anomalies or tumors that are located in delicate spots or deep within the brain and upper spinal column.

Gamma Knife radiosurgery provides a great deal of precision, making it perfect for lesions in difficult-to-reach areas. A focused treatment area is “locked in” using imaging after several different factors have been assessed. Then, these beams of radiation are pointed at their target. While the individual beams are of low enough concentration that they don’t cause tissue damage upon entry into the body, when they converge on the chosen spot the combination of their energy is great enough to damage or destroy the intended area.

Another advantage of Gamma Knife radiosurgery is that in the majority of cases it only needs to be performed once. Because of the high concentration of radiation delivered to the area, Gamma Knife radiosurgery usually needs to only be used once for effective treatment to take place.

About Radiation

Radiation has been recognized as an effective tool in the war against cancer for more than 100 years. Marie Curie’s studies into radium changed the face of cancer treatment forever. Luckily, there is now a much greater understanding of the mechanics of radiation and how it can best be used to treat many different health concerns.

The term “radiation therapy” can encompass several different ways of delivering radiation. There are a number of methods for delivery of external beam radiation therapy: conventional, three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT), intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT, a specialized form of 3D-CRT), stereotactic body radiotherapy, and image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT). Each of these has its own unique features, but the overall desired effect is the same.

Radiation therapy uses larger beams of low concentration radiation when normal tissues are part of the intended target or with larger tumors that are abutting a lot of normal tissues. This is typically delivered in low doses on a daily basis over the course of several weeks. By delivering radiation in this manner (slowly and in low concentrations) Radiation Oncologists can take advantage of our own body’s healing mechanisms to deal with the radiation damage. Since cancer cells are not as capable of repairing radiation damage they die off while our normal cells repair and go on living and functioning normally.

How Does Gamma Knife Radiosurgery Differ From Radiation?

Radiation, of any form, has the distinct advantage over surgery of being able to reach areas deep within the brain with minimal or no harm to other parts of the brain. Gamma Knife is a unique form of radiation that delivers a potent dose of radiation in one shot and is therefore ideal for lesions or targets that are distinct from normal tissues.

Gamma Knife also differs from radiation therapy in that the treatment machine was designed strictly for use in the head and upper neck region. Because of this design it provides unparalleled precision in pinpointing tiny nerves or other points in the brain, making it possible to treat areas where conventional surgery or conventional radiation would cause more damage than necessary to the vital tissues around the treatment area.

This gives Neurosurgeons and Radiation Oncologists a unique advantage in being able to provide noninvasive treatment for a multitude of issues, from nerve disorders such as trigeminal neuralgia, to malignancies within the brain.

If you’ve been recommended for either Gamma Knife radiosurgery or radiation therapy, talk with your Neurosurgeon or Radiation Oncologist in depth about both. They will be able to guide you to the most effective solution for your diagnosis.

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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