A common question many patients have is, “What is the difference between Gamma Knife Stereotactic Radiosurgery and whole brain radiation therapy?”

Broadly speaking, while both are forms of radiation therapy that are used to treat brain tumors, whole brain radiation delivers radiation treatment to the entire brain, while Gamma Knife Stereotactic Radiosurgery targets each individual tumor, thus sparing the entire brain from radiation treatment.

Gamma Knife Procedure

Gamma Knife, in spite of its name, is not a surgical procedure at all, but rather a type of radiation treatment. It uses several focused beams of radiation which are targeted directly at the tumor, sparing the healthy surrounding tissue and resulting in less of the unpleasant side effects often associated with whole brain radiation therapy.

The procedure takes place on an outpatient basis and does not require a hospital stay. The treatment time can vary from a few minutes to hours, depending on the patient’s unique condition. Many patients only require a single treatment, though others may require more – up to five – depending upon their individual condition.

Whole Brain Radiation Therapy Procedure

In contrast to Gamma Knife, whole brain radiation therapy delivers low doses of radiation to the entire brain over multiple treatment days. While whole brain radiation has proven effective and has long been the gold standard in brain tumor treatment, the effect of radiation on otherwise healthy brain tissue leads to many of the side effects often associated with this treatment technique. In several cases, including patients with brain metastases, for example, Gamma Knife Stereotactic Radiosurgery is the best treatment and offers the ability to preserve normal brain function while controlling the tumors. 

Whole brain radiation therapy is done in an outpatient setting and does not require the patient to stay in the hospital overnight. The doctor will develop a precise treatment schedule for the patient’s individual condition, but many patients undergo 10-15 whole brain radiation sessions five days a week, for two to three weeks. Potential risks and side effects of whole brain radiation therapy include, but are not limited to hair loss, headaches, nausea and deficits to memory and/or speech.

Advantages of Gamma Knife Stereotactic Radiosurgery

Because of its focused and precise nature, Gamma Knife stereotactic radiosurgery offers many advantages over whole brain radiation therapy and traditional surgery. Unlike surgery, Gamma Knife stereotactic radiosurgery is a non-invasive treatment and can be done on an outpatient basis, avoiding a hospital stay, allowing minimal recovery time and making it more convenient for the patient.

Compared to whole brain radiation, Gamma Knife stereotactic radiosurgery only affects a small portion of the brain and therefore healthy tissue will be less affected by the radiation. Because the delivery is so focused, more radiation can be delivered in a single session, reducing the number of times the patient will need to be treated as compared to whole brain radiation therapy.

Whole Brain Radiation Therapy & Brain Metastases

The treatment the doctor recommends will depend on the patient’s individual condition. Traditionally, whole brain radiation has been prescribed as the standard of care for patients who have multiple brain metastases. These are cancers which have spread from other sites in the body and they are often very small and can be numerous. This can make these tumors difficult to target individually, so whole brain radiation therapy is often the preferred option because it can treat all of the tumors at once by treating the entire brain.

Many people familiar with whole brain radiation therapy know it commonly causes hair loss. Other side effects include skin irritation, headaches and nausea. Some potential risks and complications of whole brain radiation also include cognitive problems or memory and/or speech deficits that do not resolve, intense headaches, seizures, and neurological deficits.

Leksell Gamma Knife® Icon at The Valley Hospital

The Valley Hospital is one of the first hospitals in the United States to offer the Leksell Gamma Knife Icon therapy to patients for the treatment of brain tumors. With the latest in technology, as well as nurse navigators and a dedicated medical team of experienced physicists, radiation oncologists and neurosurgeons, Valley is proud to provide patients care of the highest quality, tailored to their individual needs.

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