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Surgeon: Weight loss procedure using balloon technology is 'worth considering'

SANDY — A fairly new tool is available in the arsenal of weight loss surgeries, and one Utah doctor is saying the "microinvasive" technology is something to consider.

"Diets work when you're on them, but as we age, our ability changes and it becomes more difficult to be successful at dieting," said Dr. Walter Medlin, a bariatric surgeon at Lone Peak Surgery Center.

Medlin said a new intragastric procedure, which temporarily places a balloon filled with saline inside the stomach, can help people lose an average of 22 pounds and keep it off.

And that, he said, may be enough to help people who find themselves fighting the scale and feeling defeated by yo-yo dieting and various exercise regimens.

"The balloon is an empowering step with proven results that can build confidence," Medlin said. "It can be effective in stopping the progression toward obesity, at which point more invasive treatments become necessary."

For her entire adult life, 39-year-old Jennifer, of Logan, has battled obesity. It's been discouraging for her, she said, because she likes being active and works hard at trying to be fit.

"I want to be happy with the way I feel," said Jennifer, who asked not to be identified by her real name. "I want to be able to do things. Weight really holds a person back physically."

She hasn't told many people, but Jennifer had the balloon inserted by Medlin in December. Even though it is expensive and not covered by many insurances, she said, "it was worth it to me."

She has lost 30 pounds so far, though research shows the first half of the process yields higher loss totals as the stomach gets accustomed to being full all the time.

"I wasn't willing to wait until I got to that unhappy of a place," Jennifer said.

The Orbera Intragastric Balloon is inserted for a period of six months, at which time it is removed in much the same way it was put in — through an endoscopic procedure lasting about 15 minutes. The "orb" aims to reinforce portion control, signalling to the body that it is no longer hungry. At that point, food should be eaten for survival purposes.

Side effects can include nausea and vomiting, among other minor issues, but compared with other options of surgical weight loss — including gastric banding, sleeve gastrectomy, bypass and others that include more invasive procedures — the risks from the balloon are quite limited, Medlin said.

A good candidate for the intragastric balloon procedure might have a body mass index between 30 and 40, or is 50 to 90 pounds overweight, but others can be evaluated for eligibility. Potential patients must also be willing to commit to a year-long behavioral and lifestyle change program, which includes guidance from professionals.

The inevitable weight loss caused by the intragastric balloon procedure, however, might preclude some people from qualifying for additional procedures down the road, Medlin said.

But, he said, options should be carefully considered, as not all methods are the same for people seeking potentially life-changing weight loss. He offers a consultation to help patients sift through available information.

"People don't like to get cut, and people don't like to spend money," Medlin said.

Between taking diet pills, which he said isn't very effective, and invasive surgery where a portion of a person's stomach is removed or bowels redirected, the doctor said other less-invasive options offer great and often sustainable results.

"This is effective. We know it is effective," Medlin said about the intragastric balloon. Losing about 20 pounds could give patients better insight "into the disease of obesity, not the shame and game that it is in society," he said.

Medlin said people battling obesity often feel "trapped" in life. The latest technology offers a low-risk, nonpermanent method of appetite control that could lead to greater changes or to achieving a necessary health goal, he said.

Had it been around when he had weight loss surgery in 2008, Medlin said he would have opted for the balloon. His sleeve gastrectomy surgery led to a more than 80-pound weight loss, giving the doctor a jumpstart on a healthier life.

Medlin said he continually focuses on eating episodically throughout the day, ingesting few carbs and he avoids "invisible calories" in soda and other tempting foods that don't fill him up.

Medlin is one of maybe two specially trained physicians in Utah performing the new procedure and he's done seven since the product gained Food and Drug Administration approval in August 2015.

The intragastric balloon is not yet covered by most insurance plans, but Medlin said he believes it will be some day. The cost for the procedure at the MountainStar Lone Peak Surgery Center, located at 96 E. Kimballs Lane in Draper, is roughly $7,000.

And the center offers access to a dietician and personal trainers to help patients realize the full potential of weight loss surgery for one year following the procedure.

"I don't even feel hungry," Jennifer said. "I eat because I know I need to. I eat based on what time of the day it is and I don't think about food other than that.

"It has freed up my whole life."

Jennifer said she's anxious about what life might be like without the balloon in her stomach, but with a goal to lose another 30 pounds, she is focused on nothing other than success this time around.

"My weight is going to be a constant struggle," she said, adding that she is seeing a counselor to help with the behavioral and mental health aspects of her weight loss. "I just want to be happy in the life I have."

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards