The pathology of ionizing radiation as defined by morphologic patterns

Author(s): Fajardo LF


This article presents a brief description of the effects of ionizing radiation in human tissues, as seen by the Pathologist. The lesions that occur in multiple organ/tissues will be discussed, dividing them into those that affect (a) the parenchyma or epithelia, (b) the stromal elements, and (c) the blood vessels. Since not all lesions fit into these patterns, the exceptions will be described as characteristic organ lesions. Unless specified otherwise the alterations presented are those that result from electromagnetic radiation (x-rays and gamma rays) as used for clinical radiation therapy. Most of the material presented will be delayed injury (i.e. months-to-years after exposure). The epithelial/parenchymal lesions include atrophy, necrosis, metaplasia, cellular atypia, dysplasia, and neoplasia. The common stromal lesions—the best recognized by pathologists—include fibrosis, fibrinous exudates, necrosis (with a paucity of cellular inflammatory exudates), and atypical fibroblasts. The vascular lesions are quite consistent: most often they affect the microvessels (capillaries, sinusoids) producing lethal and sublethal damage to the endothelial cells, with capillary rupture or thrombosis. Medium-size vessels show neointimal proliferation, fibrinoid necrosis, thrombosis, or acute arteritis. Damage in large vessels is less common; it occurs more in arteries than in veins and includes neointimal proliferation, atheromatosis, thrombosis and rupture (a dramatic complication). Some of the characteristic organ lesions are veno-occlusive liver disease, acute radiation pneumonitis, permanent bone marrow hypoplasia or aplasia, and colitis cystica profunda. Neoplasms are a well-recognized delayed complication of radiation and will not be described in detail. It is important to remember that there are no pathognomonic features of injuries produced by ionizing radiation. Nonetheless, although not specific individually, the combined features are characteristic enough to be recognized.

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