April 12, 2013 in Nation/World

Tiny device treats chronic heartburn

Implant helps brace weak muscles
Marilynn Marchione Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

The Linx device, a small band of magnetic titanium-covered beads, is used to treat severe acid reflux.
(Full-size photo)

A tiny magnetic bracelet implanted at the base of the throat is greatly improving life for some people with chronic heartburn who need more help than medicine can give them.

It’s a novel way to treat severe acid reflux, which plagues millions of Americans and can raise their risk for more serious health problems.

It happens when a weak muscle doesn’t close after swallowing as it should. That lets stomach juices splash back into the throat. Drugs like Nexium and Prilosec reduce acid, but they don’t fix the underlying problem, called GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease.

Rodd Foster had it so bad he used to sleep sitting up to keep his dinner down. Tricia Carr worried she would develop complications like the one that killed her mother.

Both Californians got help from the new device, approved a year ago by the federal Food and Drug Administration and also sold in Europe.

The treatment was “life-changing,” said Foster, a 61-year-old plumbing contractor from Canyon Country, Calif. “It’s been 30 years since I’ve been able to eat normally and now I can eat anything anytime.”

The Linx device, made by Torax Medical Inc., of St. Paul, Minn., is a ring of titanium beads with magnets inside. Doctors place it around the weak muscle at the base of the esophagus in a half-hour operation using a scope and “keyhole” incisions in the belly. The ring reinforces the weak muscle to keep it closed, yet is flexible and expands to let food pass when someone swallows. The ring comes in multiple sizes; it is about a half-inch in diameter and expands to about 1.5 inches. People don’t feel it once it is implanted.

The device costs $5,000; the operation can run $12,000 to $20,000 depending on hospital charges, said Dr. John Lipham, a surgeon who offers it at the University of Southern California and at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach. Many insurers cover it for patients who are not helped enough by antacid medicines.

As many as 20 million Americans have GERD. It’s not just a quality-of-life issue: Chronic acid reflux can raise the risk of a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, which in turn can raise the risk of throat cancer.

“No one doubts that reflux should be treated,” but most people get enough relief from acid-lowering medicines, said Dr. Brian Reid. He’s director of the Barrett’s esophagus program at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

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