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Radiation fibrosis is a side effect of radiation treatment which is characterized by scarring and hardening of tissue inside the body or on the skin. This side effect can appear in a number of different locations, and may cause additional complications for the patient, depending on where it manifests. While radiation fibrosis cannot be cured or resolved, there are treatments which can be used to manage it, and there are also some steps which can be taken to reduce the risk that it will develop. This condition most commonly occurs in the wake of radiation treatment for cancer.
It is believed that radiation fibrosis is probably closely linked with lymphedema, which can cause permanent damage to body tissues. Consistent inflammation and irritation leads to scarring and hardening over time, which in turn makes it more difficult for lymph to circulate, and can cause the lymphedema and fibrosis to spread. Radiation fibrosis can appear weeks or months after radiation therapy, and may grow worse over time.
On areas like the skin, fibrosis can be a cosmetic issue because it makes the skin look unsightly. In addition, it may restrict freedom of movement because the scarred skin is usually stiff and tough. Radiation fibrosis on the neck, for example, might make it hard for a patient to turn her or his head, because the scarring pulls at the neck. Fibrosis can also occur in internal organs such as the lungs, in which case it may cause secondary complications such as difficulty breathing and susceptibility to infection in the future as a result of the compromised tissue.
Being aware of the risks of radiation fibrosis from the start of radiation therapy is important. Patients should report changes they experience promptly, and they should be monitored throughout treatment for signs of complications and dangerous side effects. Sometimes early intervention can limit side effects, as for example when specialized massage is used to treat lymphedema, preventing scarring by moving lymph through the body instead of allowing it to accumulate and cause inflammation.
Some medications may also be helpful for people with radiation fibrosis. In the case of scarring on the skin, gentle stretching, massage, and other exercises can promote freedom of movement or help patients retain their current freedom of movement. Radiation-induced fibrosis inside the body is treated on a case by case basis, depending on the nature of the damage, and medical imaging studies of the involved area may be required in order to develop a treatment plan.