Device shown to ease chronic heartburn

Surgeon John Lipham talks with Tricia Carr about the heartburn-reducing device she had implanted at a hospital in Newport Beach, Calif.
Surgeon John Lipham talks with Tricia Carr about the heartburn-reducing device she had implanted at a hospital in Newport Beach, Calif. (DAMIAN DOVARGANES / Associated Press)
Posted: April 12, 2013

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 such as Nexium and Prilosec reduce acid. But they don't fix the underlying problem, called GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease.

Tricia Carr, who worried she would develop complications like the one that killed her mother, got help from the new device, approved a year ago by the Food and Drug Administration and also sold in Europe.

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. Patients 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 John Lipham, a surgeon who offers it at the University of Southern California and at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach. He consults for Torax.

A doctor with no financial ties to the company - Daniel DeMarco of Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas - said early results have been "very impressive." But only time will tell if they hold up for many years, he said.

As many as 20 million Americans have GERD. Chronic acid reflux can raise the risk of Barrett's esophagus, which can raise the risk of throat cancer.

Lipham and other doctors recently published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine of 100 patients who'd had reflux for at least 10 years and were getting worse despite using antacids. After having the magnetic ring implanted, quality of life improved substantially for 92 percent, and within one year, 86 percent no longer needed acid-lowering medicines.

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