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Radiotherapy treatment

Find out about what happens when you have radiotherapy for spinal cord compression.

Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to treat cancer cells.

Spinal cord compression happens when pressure on the spinal cord stops the nerves working normally. A cancer that has spread into the spinal bones and is pressing on the spinal cord is called metastatic spinal cord compression.

Treatment for spinal cord compression should start as soon as possible, usually within 24 hours of diagnosis.

How radiotherapy can help

Radiotherapy treatment for spinal cord compression shrinks the tumour and quickly relieves the pressure on the spinal cord.

You might have other treatments with radiotherapy including:

  • pain killers
  • steroids
  • surgery

How many treatments

You might have one or more radiotherapy treatments for spinal cord compression. Each radiotherapy treatment is called a fraction and takes a few minutes.

You might have one fraction or several over a few days.

The number of fractions you need depends on:

  • your general health
  • other treatments you are having, such as surgery

Your doctor will tell you how many fractions you need.

Before you start treatment

Preparing for your radiotherapy

You might need to go into hospital as an emergency for radiotherapy treatment. You stay in hospital for the course of treatment.

You’ll go from the ward to the radiotherapy department. Your doctor will ask you to sign a consent form beforehand.

Planning scan

The scan

You lie on the scanner couch. Your radiographers (sometimes called radiotherapists) will tell you if you need to remove any clothes. They need to see the treatment area, but will cover you up as much as possible.

Photo of a CT scanner

You have to lie as still as you can, so that the measurements are accurate and the radiographers can record your exact position. This means they can make sure you are lying in the correct position every time you have treatment.

They may need to use some equipment to support you in the right position, such as a chest board, neck rest or arm pole.

Once you are in position your radiographers move the couch up and through the scanner. The scanner is a doughnut shape.

Your radiographers leave the room and the scan starts. It takes about 5 minutes. You won't feel anything. Your radiographers watch from the room next door and you can talk to them on an intercom if you need to.

The radiotherapy room

Radiotherapy machines are very big. They rotate around you to give you your treatment. The machine doesn't touch you at any point.

Before you start your course of treatment your therapy radiographers explain what you will see and hear. In some departments the treatment rooms have docks for you to plug in your music player. So you can listen to your own music.

Photo of a linear accelerator

You normally wear a hospital gown to your radiotherapy appointment. A nurse will take you to the radiotherapy department. The radiographers help you to get into position on the treatment couch. They line up the radiotherapy machine using the marks on your skin and images from your planning scan.

You might have a plastic mould made to keep you still during your session.

You’ll be alone in the room while you have treatment. The radiographers are in the next room and can hear you. You can tell them if you need to move or need the machine to stop.

The machine makes whirring or beeping noises while you are having treatment that you can hear. 

Radiotherapy doesn’t hurt but you might find it difficult to lie still during your treatment.

After the treatment

Radiotherapy for spinal cord compression doesn't make you radioactive. It is safe to be with other people after treatment.

You go straight back to your ward after radiotherapy.

Your symptoms should start to get better within a few days of starting your treatment.

How well the treatment works depends on the type of cancer you have and how sensitive it is to radiotherapy. It can also depend on the symptoms you have at the time you have treatment.

The treatment usually helps to relieve symptoms such as:

  • pain
  • weakness in your legs
  • loss of bladder or bowel control

Side effects

Side effects of radiotherapy for spinal cord compression are usually mild. You might notice the side effects come on gradually as you go through the course if you are having a few doses.

Some common side effects are:

  • tiredness
  • redness of skin in the treatment area
  • feeling sick
  • diarrhoea

Speak to your team about any side effects you have. There are lots of things they can do to help, such as giving you anti sickness medicines for sickness. 

Information and help