Gamma Knife vs Radiation Therapy

Learning you have a medical condition can be difficult enough. Trying to understand more about your condition and treatment options can become overwhelming, especially when terminology sounds similar. You may have encountered terms like radiation, Gamma Knife radiosurgery, whole-brain radiation therapy and stereotactic radiosurgery. It can become confusing, but it doesn’t have to be.

The following information will go in-depth about two possible treatment options for conditions of the brain, head and neck: Gamma Knife vs radiation therapy. By the end, hopefully, you will have a better understanding of the differences between the two, how they work and what conditions they can treat.

What is Radiation Therapy?

You may be familiar with traditional radiation therapy for the treatment of cancer and other conditions. Many people have a friend or loved one who has undergone radiation therapy or at least have seen stories on the news or imagery in movies and television. The traditional form of radiation therapy used to treat conditions of the brain, head and neck is called whole-brain radiation.

Whole-brain radiation is just like it sounds: your treatment team will use radiation to treat the entire brain. Radiation is delivered to the area of interest (such as a tumor), as well as healthy cells. This is what leads to unpleasant side effects commonly associated with whole brain radiation therapy, such as nausea and hair loss. Treatment is performed in an outpatient setting, typically over a course of five visits per week for 2-3 weeks.

What is Gamma Knife Radiosurgery?

Gamma Knife radiosurgery is an advanced form of radiation therapy used specifically to treat conditions of the brain, head and neck. Like other radiation treatments, Gamma Knife radiosurgery takes place in an outpatient setting. However, there is a significant difference in the technology and how the treatment works.

Rather than dosing the entire brain with radiation, the Gamma Knife system uses 192 individual beams of high-dose radiation that can target an area as precise as 0.15 mm. That’s the width of a single human hair. As a result, your treatment team can treat just the area of interest, sparing healthy surrounding tissues. This results in fewer unpleasant side effects, as well as fewer overall treatment sessions. Some patients only undergo a single session, depending on the condition and area being treated. 

What Conditions Are Treated With Radiation Therapy?

Whole-brain radiation therapy is typically used to treat metastatic brain cancer. This is cancer that has traveled from a distant site, such as the prostate or breast, and formed tumors within the brain. These tumors can be numerous, small and difficult to reach. Recall that whole-brain radiation treats the entire brain, which is why it can be an effective treatment when there are multiple tumors.

What Conditions Are Treated With Gamma Knife Radiosurgery?

Gamma Knife radiosurgery can be used as a primary mode of treatment or as part of a combination approach following surgery. It can also be used following other forms of radiation therapy if a condition does not respond or returns. Specific conditions treated using Gamma Knife radiosurgery include:

Because it is a minimally invasive treatment, Gamma Knife radiosurgery can be an excellent treatment option for someone who cannot undergo surgery due to other health conditions or if an area is difficult to reach surgically. Some patients simply prefer a minimally invasive approach, making Gamma Knife radiosurgery a great choice.

What Are the Benefits of Gamma Knife Radiosurgery?

When compared to traditional radiation therapy, Gamma Knife radiosurgery presents many benefits. These include:

  • Fewer treatment sessions – Most patients require 1-5 sessions, compared to 5 sessions per week for 2-3 weeks of whole-brain radiation therapy.
  • Less unpleasant side effects – Because the treatment is limited to the area of interest, healthy cells are spared and there is less fatigue, nausea, hair loss and other effects.
  • Shorter recovery time – Again, because healthy brain tissue is not dosed, the recovery period is short and mild following Gamma Knife radiosurgery, with most patients back to normal activities within a day or two.

Radiation Therapy and Your Condition

It’s important to keep in mind that your doctor will make treatment recommendations based on many factors, including your specific condition, size and location of the area to be treated and your overall health. He or she will be the best person to discuss the use of radiation therapy versus Gamma Knife radiosurgery for your individual condition, including the effectiveness and risks and benefits of each treatment method.

If you still have lingering questions about the differences between Gamma Knife vs radiation therapy, take a minute to jot them down to bring up at your next appointment with your doctor. He or she can answer them for you and help make sure you understand your treatment options. It’s important you’re comfortable with your decisions before, during and after treatment, and he or she can work with you to help set your mind at ease. That’s going to translate into peace of mind as you move forward through the treatment process.

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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