Gamma Knife

Gamma Knife

(Stereotactic radiosurgery, Gamma Knife surgery)

Procedure overview

What is Gamma Knife radiosurgery?

Gamma Knife radiosurgery, also called stereotactic radiosurgery, is a very precise form of therapeutic radiology. Even though it is called surgery, a Gamma Knife procedure does not involve actual surgery, nor is the Gamma Knife really a knife at all. It uses beams of highly-focused gamma rays to treat small- to medium-size lesions, usually in the brain. Many beams of gamma radiation join to focus on the lesion under treatment, providing a very intense dose of radiation without a surgical incision or opening.

Illustration of the anatomy of the brain, adult
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Gamma Knife radiosurgery is called "surgery" because the end result is very similar to physically removing the lesion with surgery. The beams of radiation are very precisely focused to reach the tumor, lesion, or other area being treated with minimal effect on surrounding healthy tissue.

Gamma Knife radiosurgery is most often used to treat small and medium tumors and other lesions in the brain. It is also used to treat certain neurological conditions, such as trigeminal neuralgia (a condition in which pressure on the trigeminal nerve causes spasms of extreme facial pain) and acoustic neuroma (a noncancerous tumor in the brain that affects the nerves that control hearing).

Gamma Knife radiosurgery may be used in situations where the brain lesion cannot be reached by conventional surgical techniques. It may also be used in persons whose condition is such that they might not be able to tolerate a surgical procedure, such as craniotomy, to treat their condition.

Because the therapeutic effects of a Gamma Knife procedure occur rather slowly over time, it is not used for persons whose condition requires more immediate therapy.

How does Gamma Knife radiosurgery work?

Radiosurgery works in the same manner as other types of therapeutic radiology: it distorts or destroys the DNA of tumor cells, causing them to be unable to reproduce and grow. The tumor will shrink in size over time. For blood vessel lesions such as an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), the blood vessels eventually close off after treatment.

Gamma Knife treatment generally involves these steps:

Gamma Knife Radiosurgery
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A Gamma Knife procedure involves a treatment team approach. The treatment team generally includes a radiation oncologist (a physician specializing in radiation treatment for cancer), a neurosurgeon and/or a neuroradiologist, a radiation therapist, and a registered nurse. In addition, a medical physicist and a dosimetrist work together to calculate the precise number of exposures and beam placement necessary to obtain the radiation dose that is prescribed by the radiation oncologist. Your treatment team may include other healthcare professionals in addition to or in place of those listed here.

The Gamma Knife system is one of three types of radiosurgery systems. Gamma Knife systems are cobalt 60 systems, which means they use cobalt as a source for gamma rays. During Gamma Knife treatment, the equipment remains stationary (does not move).

Two other types of radiosurgery are:

Reasons for the procedure

Gamma Knife radiosurgery may be used to treat certain conditions of the brain in particular instances. Brain conditions that may be treated with a Gamma Knife procedure include, but are not limited to, the following:

Gamma Knife radiosurgery has shown some promise for treating conditions such as tremor and rigidity related to Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, and chronic pain.

There may be other reasons for your physician to recommend Gamma Knife radiosurgery.

Risks of the procedure

If you are pregnant or suspect that you may be pregnant, you should notify your physician. Radiation exposure during pregnancy may lead to birth defects.

Other risks may include, but are not limited to, the following:

Some risks and side effects may be related to the location and size of the area being treated by the Gamma Knife procedure. These may include:

There may be other risks depending upon your specific medical condition. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your physician prior to the procedure.

Before the procedure

During the procedure

A Gamma Knife procedure may be performed on an outpatient basis or as part of your stay in a hospital. Procedures may vary depending on your condition and your physician's practices.

Gamma Knife Machine and Helmet
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Generally, a Gamma Knife procedure follows this process:

  1. You will be asked to remove any clothing, jewelry, hairpins, dentures, or other objects that may interfere with the procedure, and will be given a gown to wear.
  2. An IV line may be started in the hand or arm in order to give medications and/or fluids during the procedure.
  3. The hair at the area around the head frame insertion sites may be clipped off.
  4. The skin on your head will be cleansed at the locations where the pins for the head frame will be placed.
  5. A local anesthetic will be injected at the head frame pin insertion sites. Once the anesthetic has taken effect, the head frame will be attached to your head with pins that are inserted into your skull.
  6. You may feel some pressure during the placement of the head frame, but this sensation should go away in a few minutes.
  7. After the head frame is attached, you will undergo brain imaging so that the location of the brain tumor or lesion can be precisely identified for planning the treatment. The brain imaging procedure may be a computed tomography (CT) scan, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, or a cerebral angiogram.
  8. After the brain imaging has been completed, you will be allowed to rest and relax while the treatment team completes your treatment plan. The images from your imaging procedure will be used by a computer in planning your specialized treatment.
  9. When your treatment plan is ready, you will be taken into the room where the Gamma Knife equipment is located. You will lie down on a sliding table. A special helmet, called a collimator helmet, will be fitted over the head frame. The collimator helmet has 201 holes in it, which allow radiation beams to pass through it into your brain in a very precise pattern that is determined by a computer.
  10. Once the helmet is in place, the table will slide into the Gamma Knife unit. You may hear a clicking sound as the collimator helmet moves into place in the machine.
  11. The treatment team will go into another room when the treatment begins. You will have an intercom available to communicate with the treatment team. They will be able to hear you at all times. You will also be observed with a video monitor.
  12. The number of treatments will depend on your specific situation. The entire treatment session may last from two to four hours, but the length of the session will depend on the treatment plan designed for you.
  13. You will not feel or hear anything from the Gamma Knife unit during the treatment session.
  14. After the treatment session is over, the treatment table will slide out of the Gamma Knife machine. You will be allowed to get up at this time, unless you had an angiogram prior to the Gamma Knife procedure.
  15. The head frame will be removed. The pin insertion sites will be cleaned and a sterile dressing will be applied.

After the procedure

After the procedure, you will be observed for a period of time. If your brain imaging prior to the Gamma Knife procedure was a cerebral angiogram, you will need to lie still with the affected leg straight for a few hours until the catheter insertion site in the groin is no longer bleeding.

Once you are able to take liquids by mouth, the IV line will be removed. You may take liquids and solid foods as tolerated.

You may feel some discomfort after the procedure, such as a headache or nausea. Let your nurse know if you are uncomfortable, so that you may be given medication and/or other treatment.

The Gamma Knife procedure is generally performed on an outpatient basis, so you most likely will be allowed to go home at the end of the day. You will need to have someone drive you home, however. If necessary, you may be admitted to the hospital for overnight observation.

Once you are home, you may resume your normal diet, medications, and activities, unless your physician instructs you differently. You may be instructed to avoid strenuous activity, such as exercise, for a period of time.

You will most likely be allowed to gently shampoo your hair the day after the procedure. You should not scrub the pin sites on your head, however, until they have completed healed, generally within a week or so.

Call your physician to report any of the following:

Your physician may give you additional or alternate instructions after the procedure, depending on your particular situation.

Online resources

The content provided here is for informational purposes only, and was not designed to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or replace the professional medical advice you receive from your physician. Please consult your physician with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.

This page contains links to other websites with information about this procedure and related health conditions. We hope you find these sites helpful, but please remember we do not control or endorse the information presented on these websites, nor do these sites endorse the information contained here.

American Brain Tumor Association

American Cancer Society

National Brain Tumor Society

National Cancer Institute (NCI)

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Radiological Society of North America


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