Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome

Author: Courtney Misher, MPH, BS R.T.(T)
Last Reviewed: October 19, 2022

Radiation therapy is a common treatment for head and neck cancer. Radiation kills cancer cells but can also affect healthy cells within the treatment field. Radiation can cause increased production of fibrin. Fibrin is a protein found in the body that builds up over time and causes tissue damage. This damage can cause radiation fibrosis, which can affect any tissues in the radiation field. This damage can cause:

  • Shortening of tissues.
  • Contracture and atrophy (wasting) of muscle.
  • Bones become weak and brittle.
  • Nerve damage (neuropathy).
  • Head and neck lymphedema.

What are the signs and symptoms?

The signs and symptoms of radiation fibrosis are known as radiation fibrosis syndrome (RFS). You may notice signs and symptoms of RFS weeks to years after treatment. These symptoms may get worse over time. If radiation was part of your head and neck cancer treatment plan, you are at a higher risk of getting radiation fibrosis syndrome (RFS).

What are the side effects of RFS?

Some of the side effects of RFS include:

How is RFS treated?

The treatment for RFS depends on the symptoms and side effects you are having. Treatment for RFS may include:

  • Physical therapy.
  • Occupational therapy.
  • Speech and swallow therapy.
  • Surgery.

Cancer rehabilitation specialists can help manage radiation fibrosis, though these specialists are not available everywhere. Speak with your provider about any symptoms you are having so that together you can make a treatment plan.

References

Hojan, K., & Milecki, P. (2013). Opportunities for rehabilitation of patients with radiation fibrosis syndrome. Reports of practical oncology and radiotherapy: journal of Greatpoland Cancer Center in Poznan and Polish Society of Radiation Oncology, 19(1), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rpor.2013.07.007

Murphy, B. A., & Deng, J. (2015). Advances in Supportive Care for Late Effects of Head and Neck Cancer. Journal of clinical oncology: official journal of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, 33(29), 3314–3321. https://doi.org/10.1200/JCO.2015.61.3836

Radiation fibrosis. American Head & Neck Society. (2018, September 13). Retrieved October 13, 2022, from: https://www.ahns.info/survivorship_intro/radiation-fibrosis/

Stubblefield M. D. (2011). Radiation fibrosis syndrome: neuromuscular and musculoskeletal complications in cancer survivors. PM & R: the journal of injury, function, and rehabilitation, 3(11), 1041–1054. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmrj.2011.08.535

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