Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Implant gives reflux sufferer her life back

Pacemaker-like device inserted below the ribs ends years of agony for Hamilton woman.

Rebecca Griffin says that following the implant, she can enjoy eating food again and doesn't have to be on a strictly controlled diet. Photo / Alan Gibson
Rebecca Griffin says that following the implant, she can enjoy eating food again and doesn't have to be on a strictly controlled diet. Photo / Alan Gibson

Rebecca Griffin's severe acid reflux used to give her hours of agony - to the point where she would consider making herself vomit to bring relief.

But the Hamilton woman says her life has been "given back" after she was fitted with a pacemaker-like device that may offer new hope to the worst sufferers from the common condition.

For years, the 42-year-old suffered the extreme discomfort that came with chronic heartburn and reflux, such as chest pain, sore throat, coughing, headaches, regurgitation and bloating.

Even when controlling her diet and taking strong medication each day, the pain meant she slept poorly and felt "generally miserable" after every meal.

She was forced to limit food portions and coffee, steer clear of common ingredients such as garlic, onion and pepper, and avoid lying down within three hours of eating.

"I couldn't enjoy dining out, as I knew I would end up suffering for the rest of the night. At times the regurgitation would be so bad I would feel like making myself vomit just for some relief."

When she saw an advertisement asking for participants in a trial for a new treatment, she jumped at the opportunity.

The study, supported by Auckland firm Obex Medical, involved implanting a stimulation system produced by a United States company, EndoStim.

The device produces electric impulses, similar to a cardiac pacemaker, which stimulate the muscle valve at the bottom of the gullet (oesophagus) to contract and prevent or reduce reflux.

After being accepted for the trial, Ms Griffin underwent laparoscopic surgery at North Shore Hospital and had the device implanted just below her left ribs.

She said the surgery was swift, leaving just a small scar, and she recovered after about four weeks. The improvement was "dramatic" and now she was symptom-free.

"I can now enjoy eating food again and I don't have to be on a strictly controlled diet. The daily pain and discomfort have gone and I now have no problem falling asleep at night."

Dr Michael Booth, who carried out the surgery, said 33 patients had been recruited internationally for the trial. Previous studies had come only from single centres.

"I felt it was worthwhile exploring the potential of this device, which might be a substitute for anti-reflux surgery in some patients."

Quality-of-life scores had improved for participants in the study and they were taking less time off work, but long-term follow-up was required, Dr Booth said.

Acid reflux was very common, with about 20 per cent of New Zealand adults reporting regular symptoms.

The device is not publicly funded in New Zealand, and those interested should discuss it with their health insurers.

- NZ Herald

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