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What is Proton Radiation Treatment?

By Alex Terris
Updated May 17, 2024
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Proton radiation treatment is a medical therapy that involves firing a tight beam of protons at diseased tissue. It is generally more accurate than other forms of radiotherapy, mainly due to the relatively large size of protons, resulting in reduced particle scattering. This means that less of the body's healthy tissue may be damaged in the process. The therapy is often used to treat cancer because it is effective at eliminating damaged cells in tumors. There are potential short- and long-term side effects of the therapy, although these are said to be rare.

In this treatment, a beam of protons, which are positively charge particles, are fired at an area of tissue. A small particle accelerator speeds up protons to the desired energy. Due to the high energy of the particles, the targeted tissue is damaged and either dies or cannot reproduce. The chance of negative side effects is reduced because of the narrow beam, which minimizes the healthy tissue that is affected.

Compared to other types of radiotherapy, proton radiation treatment is generally much more accurate. This is because protons are relatively heavy compared to other particles, i.e., they stay in a tighter beam while traveling. The depth to which the protons travel into the body depends on their energy, thereby allowing the technician to control how deep they penetrate. Higher energy protons are needed to treat deeper tissue.

Proton radiation is mainly used in the treatment of cancer. As a tumor can be quite large, protons of a variety of energies are fired into the tissue to kill as much of the cancer as possible. In some cases, proton radiation treatment is deployed because of its ability to deliver high doses to a specific site. This increases the chance of a cure. In other situations, the therapy can be applied at the same dosage as other forms of treatment, but as noted, the narrow beam means less healthy tissue is damaged.

Even though proton radiation treatment is not a new technology, there is still a chance of negative side effects. The therapy has similar side effects to other types of radiotherapy, although these are dependent on the area of the body being treated. Potential side effects include nausea, headaches, diarrhea, hair loss around the area of treatment, and urinary problems. Long-term side effects are much less common, but can include infertility and secondary cancer. The patient usually feels no pain during the procedure.

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