Gamma Knife Side Effects: Short and Long Term
Published Dec 21, 2020
Despite its name, gamma knife surgery doesn’t use any knife or even require incisions for that matter. Instead, it uses radiation to target brain tumors. With this, it’s but reasonable to worry about its possible side effects.
A non-invasive alternative to brain surgery, gamma knife is quickly becoming a popular treatment for:
- brain cancer
- metastatic brain tumors
- benign brain tumors
- certain brain abnormalities
Aside from brain illnesses, it works for blood vessel abnormalities and chronic facial pain too.
Since it’s non-invasive, the procedure requires no anesthesia and has no downtime. Patients can go back to their regular routine right after they get out of the clinic. Plus, the treatment only takes only one session. As opposed to traditional brain surgery which requires opening your skull and dissecting your brain, the gamma knife is obviously the safer choice. Or is it?
Even with its relative safety, remember that gamma knife surgery still uses radiation. So whether you’re planning to go through it or are helping someone prepare for it, it’s important to know the risks and side effects associated with the procedure.
How Does Gamma Knife Work?
As mentioned, instead of opening your head and taking out the tumor, gamma knife surgery uses radiation. The term “gamma knife” itself is not the name of the procedure but the brand of the equipment used. The medical term for this procedure is stereotactic radiosurgery.
Using specialized equipment, the surgery involves simultaneously focusing 200 beams of radiation on a tumor. The intense radiation exposure kills the tumor cells. But since the beams are targeted to precision, the surrounding healthy cells won’t be affected. Because it requires no incision, it can also reach certain areas of the brain that traditional surgery can’t.
To determine which cells to target, the patient will first undergo an imaging test like an MRI or CT scan. During the surgery, the patient will also have to wear a frame of some sort over their head. The frame helps doctors pinpoint where to focus the beams. It also holds the patient’s head in place while the surgery is going on. A computer program is also used to control the amount of radiation that will be delivered.
The entire procedure can take around 15 minutes to an hour. But the patient may not see definite results until after several weeks or months.
Gamma Knife Side Effects
In general, stereotactic radiosurgery procedures like gamma knife is considered safe. But it does have some side effects you need to be aware of – both short term and long term.
Short Term Side Effects
The most common side effects reported right after a gamma knife surgery includes:
- a numb feeling on the scalp
- mild swelling on the forehead and eyelids
Some patients have also reported seizure and skin irritation around the treatment area. But they’re more of an exception rather than the norm. These side effects are temporary and usually clears up after a few days.
Long Term Side Effects
In some cases, a patient may feel perfectly alright after the surgery. But after a few days or weeks, they may experience delayed and long-term side-effects such as:
- Swelling of the brain or around the treatment area which usually shows up about 6 months after the surgery. The surgeon may prescribe anti-inflammatory medication to calm the swelling.
- Death of the brain tissues within or near the treatment area. This usually occurs months after the surgery and can be treated with steroids.
- Hair loss, especially if the target area is very close to the scalp.
Is It Worth the Possible Side Effects?
Gamma knife is a relatively new technology. So there are only very few studies conducted to determine its effectiveness and safety. But those studies suggest that it’s effective and safe especially for benign meningiomas.
Of all the available technologies for treating brain tumors and lesions, this is obviously one of the safest. Between having your skull opened or pumping radiation precisely into the cancer cells, the choice is a no-brainer.
About The Author
Judy Ponio is a firm believer in the power of knowledge when it comes to whole body donation and she wants to share her experience with the world. She also loves to write about food and art.