SEATTLE -- Twenty-million Americans suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), better known as acid reflux, heartburn or indigestion. Until recently, treatment options were limited to medications or elaborate surgery.
Now, doctors at Swedish Medical Center say they can cure GERD using magnets, meaning indigestion sufferers could soon be enjoying enchiladas, coffee or late-night snacks without feeling the burn of acid reflux.
The LINX is a small band of magnets placed around the valve just above the stomach to prevent acid from rising into the esophagus or throat. It expands to allow food to travel from the esophagus into the stomach but also tightens the valve so that acid does not rise up out of the stomach.
Once the LINX is in place, patients can resume a normal diet without any reflux symptoms.
Swedish is currently the only medical center n Washington State offering the LINX treatment. Since September, eight patients have had the device implanted, with three more scheduled for March.
Dr. Brian Louie, the thoracic surgeon implanting the LINX at Swedish, says this is the first advancement in GERD management in the past 20 years.
"This is a game changer," Louie said. "It gives physicians who treat acid reflux some alternatives that we did not have before."
Currently, the most common treatment for GERD is proton-pump inhibitor medications, such as Nexium or Prilosec. However, Louie found these only work for about 60 percent of patients. Additionally, patients are not advised to use proton-pump inhibitors long-term because they can decrease your body's calcium.
Patients with GERD can also have a fundoplication surgery, in which the upper part of the stomach is wrapped around the esophagus. Louie said only 1 percent of patients chose this surgery because most think it is too aggressive.
The surgery required to place LINX is much quicker and has a shorter recovery time, Louie said. The device is implanted through a small incision in just 35 minutes. While patients are currently being kept in the hospital overnight after having the LINX surgery, Louie predicted it will eventually become an outpatient procedure.
The LINX device is expected to remain effective throughout the patient's life. And, Louie said it can be removed at any time, while fundoplication can be difficult to reverse.
Louie said about 39 percent of patients suffering from GERD are not cured by medications and chose not to have fundoplication surgery, so their acid reflux only worsens throughout their lives. For these patients, he said LINX could offer relief.
Bob Franklin of Seattle had the LINX implanted eight weeks ago because medications weren't eliminating his reflux symptoms.
"I wasn't looking forward to spending my retired years with heartburn," Franklin said.
When he heard about LINX, Franklin said he decided to try it. After a couple weeks recovering, Franklin said he is now enjoying a regular diet without any GERD symptoms.
"I'm enjoying my coffee in the morning and sleeping much better," he said.
But, a recent trial suggests the long-term effects of this treatment are unknown.
The trial published this week by the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that the LINX is effective in treating acid reflux but that more studies are needed to determine its long-term effects.
The trial followed 100 patients who had the device implanted. Of these, 92 reported an improved quality of life and 93 stopped or reduced their use of acid reflux medications after one year.
Still, 68 percent of patients reported some difficulty swallowing immediately after the LINX was placed, but only 11 were experiencing the side effect after one year. The study reports six of the 100 patients had significantly adverse side effects causing them to have the LINX removed.