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Comparative Effectiveness and Safety of Radiotherapy Treatments for Head and Neck Cancer

Clinician Summary – Nov. 30, 2010

Comparative Effectiveness and Safety of Radiotherapy Treatments for Head and Neck Cancer


Table of Contents

Key Clinical Issue

What is the comparative effectiveness and safety of external-beam radiation therapies for head and neck cancer?

Background Information

Decisions about treatment for head and neck cancer are largely dependent on the site, stage, and histological characteristics of the disease. Treatment may include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or some combination of these.

In recent years, the techniques for external-beam radiation therapy have evolved with the intended purpose of delivering more radiation to the tumor while sparing normal tissues and adjacent vulnerable organs. In recent years, two-dimensional radiation therapy (2DRT), three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3DCRT), and intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) have been the most commonly used techniques for head and neck cancer. Despite the widespread adoption of IMRT throughout the U.S., few prospective, randomized studies have directly compared the clinical effectiveness of IMRT with that of either 3DCRT or 2DRT. Proton beam therapy is less commonly used.


Despite proposed advantages and risks of various radiotherapies for head and neck cancer, the current evidence is insufficient to determine if 2DRT, 3DCRT, or IMRT confers any advantages in terms of tumor control and survival. This does not mean that differences do not exist, but that future study is required. However, with respect to adverse events and quality of life, IMRT is associated with a lower incidence of late xerostomia and with improved quality of life for domains related to late xerostomia. For other adverse effects, differences and risks may exist, but there is insufficient evidence from which to permit conclusions about any comparative effects.

A note regarding this Clinician Guide

A systematic review of 108 clinical studies was conducted by independent researchers, funded by AHRQ, to synthesize the evidence on what is known and not known on this clinical issue.

This topic was nominated through a public process. The research questions and the results of the report were subject to expert input, peer review, and public comment.

The results of this review are summarized here for use in your decisionmaking and in discussions with patients. The full report, with references for included and excluded studies, is available at

Clinical Bottom Line

Confidence Scale

The confidence ratings in this guide are derived from a systematic review of the literature. The level of confidence is based on the overall quantity and quality of clinical evidence.


There are consistent results from good quality studies. Further research is very unlikely to change the conclusions.


Findings are supported, but further research could change the conclusions.


There are very few studies, or existing studies are flawed.

Gaps in Knowledge

What To Discuss With Your Patients

  • Whether critical normal structures are present in the field to be irradiated (e.g., salivary glands, pituitary gland, optic nerve) and the potential resulting adverse events.
  • The potential benefits and the acute and late harms of the proposed radiation treatment for the individual patient—given the type, location, and stage of his or her cancer.
  • The potential long-term adverse effects of radiation on quality of life—given the patient’s individual lifestyle and values.
  • The likely out-of-pocket expense to the patient for each type of radiation therapy, depending on the patient’s insurance coverage.


The information in this summary is based on Comparative Effectiveness and Safety of Radiation Therapy Treatments for Head and Neck Cancer, Comparative Effectiveness Review No. 20, prepared by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association Technology Evaluation Center and Evidence-based Practice Center under Contract No. 290-02-0026 for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, January 2009. Available at:

This summary was prepared by the John M. Eisenberg Center for Clinical Decisions and Communications Science at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX. It was written by Kim Farina, Ph.D., Thomas Workman, Ph.D., Chantele Singleton M.S., CHES, Laura Petersen, M.D., Anuja Jhingran, M.D., and Michael Fordis, M.D. 

Ordering Information

For electronic copies of Choosing Radiotherapy for Head and Neck Cancer, A Guide for Adults and Their Caregivers (AHRQ Pub. No. 10(11)-EHC014-A, this clinician guide, and the full systematic review, visit To order free print copies, call the AHRQ Publications Clearinghouse at 800-358-9295.

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