DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I saw a story on the news about magnets being used to treat patients with GERD. Is this treatment safe? How does it work? I’ve taken prescription drugs for GERD for years and would love to not need medication anymore.
ANSWER: The treatment you heard about is a new therapy now available for people with persistent gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. It involves placing around the lower end of the esophagus a device that looks like a bracelet and is made up of magnetic beads. The device allows food to pass into the stomach, but prevents acid and other digestive juices in the stomach from getting up into the esophagus.
Normally a ring of muscle, called the lower esophageal sphincter, located at the bottom of the esophagus and the top of the stomach stays closed when you’re not eating. This keeps the acid that’s in your stomach out of your esophagus. If those muscles become weak or relax when they shouldn’t, acid can work its way into the esophagus. This acid reflux leads to the painful burning and regurgitation symptoms known as heartburn. The combination of acid reflux with heartburn, when they last over time, is GERD.
In the past, treatment for GERD has relied mainly on medicine to reduce stomach acid. But that’s not always effective in controlling the disorder. This new treatment is intended for people whose GERD symptoms continue to flare up even when they take a daily dose of medication.
Effective control of GERD is important because, if left untreated, excessive acid can damage the esophagus and lead to a precancerous condition known as Barrett’s esophagus and, eventually, to esophageal cancer.
The purpose of putting the bracelet device around the esophagus is to reinforce the lower esophageal sphincter. The device is placed in the same area as that ring of muscle. The magnetic force between each bead holds the bracelet snug around the esophagus.