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Tiny Bracelet Helps Patients Beat Chronic Heartburn

Update Date: Apr 12, 2013 03:33 PM EDT

A tiny magnetic bracelet that is implanted at the base of the throat can provide relief for people who suffer from chronic heartburn.

Millions of Americans suffer from severe acid reflux which is caused by a weak muscle that is unable to close properly after swallowing. There are drugs to help reduce the acid such as Nexium and Prolisec, but they do not fix the actual problem which is gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD.

California resident, Rodd Foster, used to have acid reflux so bad he would sleep sitting up to keep his dinner down. But he found relief from the device which he referred to as "life-changing."

"It's been 30 years since I've been able to eat normally and now I can eat anything anytime," Foster told AP News.  

The device was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) a year ago and has been sold in Europe.

The device is called Linx, made by Torax Medical Inc., of St. Paul, Minn. It is a ring of tiny titanium beads with magnets inside that is placed around the weak muscle at the base of the esophagus. Doctors use a scope to make a "keyhole" incision in the belly during the half-hour operation, which reinforces the muscle in order to keep it closed yet maintains flexibility to let foods pass when the person swallows. Linx comes in different sizes; it is about a half-inch in diameter and can expand to about 1.5 inches.

The device costs $5,000 and the operation can be anywhere between $12,000 to $20,000 depending on hospital charges, according to Dr. John Lipham, who offers the surgery at the University of Southern California and Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach.

Many insurance companies will provide coverage for patients who do not get relief from antacid medicines.

"It is a clever device," said Dr. Donald Castell, a gastroenterologist at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. The magnets "just bolster a little bit the pressure that is normally there" and help seal off the stomach juices, he said.

Lipham and Castell both consult Torax, a third expert with no financial ties to the company.

Early results with the device have been "very impressive," said Daniel DeMarco of Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, but only time will tell if they hold up for many years.

GERD affects up to 20 million Americans and can raise the risk of a condition called Barrett's esophagus, which in turn can raise the risk of throat cancer, according to AP News.

"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.

Lipham gave a presentation on the device at a staff training session at Hoag, the Newport Beach hospital where Nurse Tricia Carr who also suffers from GERD heard of Linx.

"After his talk I went right over to him and said, 'I need one of those things,'" Carr said. She received the device in October at the USC hospital in Los Angeles and said it completely fixed her reflux immediately.

Carr also said another benefit of the device is she now eats more slowly and chews her food better to avoid swallowing problems right after the surgery, which had helped her lose 10 pounds.

A recent study published by Lipham and fellow doctors in the New England Journal of Medicine analyzed 100 patients who had acid reflux that was becoming increasingly worse for at least 10 years, despite antacids.

After the patients had the magnetic ring implanted in their throats, the acid measured significantly decreased. Ninety-two percent of the patients said their quality of life improved substantially and 86 percent no longer needed antacid medications.

Patients' reported the most frequent side effect was difficulty swallowing, which occurred in 68 percent of participants following the surgery and dropped to 11 percent after one year and 4 percent after three years.

Of the 100 patients, six had to have the device removed. Three of which removed it because swallowing problems persisted. Other problems prompted removal in the others.

So far the device is available in 24 states.

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