As the amount of weight loss surgeries in the U.S. continue to rise, doctors are finding different and better ways to surgically treat obesity. One of the newest players in the game is called an intragastric balloon, and as it’s not approved for use in the United States, many patients have chosen to cross the border to Canada to do the procedure.
The intragastric balloon is less invasive than traditional bariatric surgery. It involves inserting a tube down the esophagus into the stomach, so there’s no surgical incision. A deflated balloon is then threaded down the tube, and once placed, blown up to the size of an orange and filled with sterile blue water. It can stay there for up to six months, at which point it is removed to prevent ruptures. This can be done multiple times if the patient continues to need the support the balloon provides. The balloon decreases the patient’s feelings of hunger, making them eat less and lose weight.
Although the average weight of Americans continues to bound upward, there are still very few bariatric surgeries performed annually. Less than one percent of individuals who meet the criteria for bariatric surgery actually have surgery, according to the American Society for Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery. Each year, about 250,000 Americans choose to have some form of weight loss surgery, the most popular being gastric bypass, a gastric band, sleeve gastrectomy, or duodenal switch. These involve removing a portion of the stomach, restricting how much food can go into the stomach, rerouting the intestinal system, or a combination of these methods. The gastric sleeve is cheapest, costing around $10,000, while the others range from $17,000 to $35,000, according to the Consumer Guide to Bariatric Surgery.
The intragastric balloon takes a different approach by being reversible, minimally invasive, and cheaper than conventional bariatric surgery. The complete service of the procedure, maintenance, and follow up is approximately $8,000. Canadian clinics say they have seen very positive results so far, with an average of 20 – 40 pounds lost and the weight loss maintained over the course of six months.
About one-third of the patients getting intragastric balloons in Canada are American. The product is currently undergoing clinical trials with the FDA, so approval is pending. While some doctors hail the procedure’s benefits, it is not without risk. The balloon could possibly break and require surgery to remove, although one doctors’ panel in favor of the procedure said that more than 80,000 placements have been performed without an instance of leakage or deflation. It can also cause nausea and vomiting if patients overeat.
Some companies making the balloons speculate that bariatric surgeons disapprove of them as they will make much less money than when they perform a traditional surgery, but it may come down to the simple lack of clinical trials. One bariatric doctor interviewed by ABC News about the procedure said that the stomach may learn to compensate for the presence of the balloon, stunting weight loss efforts.
Still, thousands of patients have been willing to try their luck with it making the procedure popular in Canada, Europe, and South America, especially among American medical tourists. It can be a good choice for those who are not good candidates for other types of bariatric procedures, or as a precursor to lose some weight before a more invasive surgery can be performed.