Are Stomach Balloons the Future of Weight Loss?

Obesity is the most serious health problem facing the world. In the US, one in three adults is considered obese, and two in three are either obese or overweight by clinical definitions. It’s estimated that by 2030 more than half the world’s population will be overweight or obese. Associated health problems include certain types of cancer, type II diabetes, heart disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, osteoarthritis, and high blood pressure.

Despite wide acceptance by physicians, weight loss surgery like the gastric bypass procedure has been largely rejected by healthcare consumers. Only 1 to 2 percent of people who qualify for weight loss surgery decide to have it. For the other 99%, the idea of permanently changing their bodies and the risk of life-threatening complications aren’t worth the potential for weight loss.

Other consumers are discouraged by how difficult it is to get insurance coverage for weight loss procedures. Many have to appeal several times before getting approval, and some are never approved at all. And many Americans don’t have the $23,000 it may cost to pay for gastric bypass surgery out of their pockets.

What Are Stomach Balloons?

Stomach balloons (also known as gastric balloons), a less invasive, cheaper weight loss therapy, are growing in popularity. Insurance companies often refuse to cover a gastric balloon, but the total cost of the procedure is under $10,000. Instead of permanently changing a patient’s body, a gastric balloon is meant to be a temporary weight loss aid.

A silicone balloon is inserted endoscopically (down through the esophagus) and then inflated with a sterile saline solution. The balloon takes up space in the stomach to help patients adjust to healthier portion sizes. The entire procedure takes about 20-30 minutes, and the balloon is inflated to about the size of a grapefruit. The balloon stays in place for six months, which is thought to be long enough to change the eating habits of most patients.

During those six months, patients also receive diet and lifestyle counseling to help them get the most out of the procedure. After the balloon is removed, patients continue with another six months of counseling to help them keep off the weight they’ve lost.

In one study patients who had received ORBERA, the most popular gastric balloon device, lost an average of 21.8 pounds while the device was in place and maintained a weight loss average of 19.4 pounds in the six months after removal. Comparatively, patients who didn’t receive a device but participated in the weight loss counseling part of the program lost an average of seven pounds.

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Are Stomach Balloons Safe?

According to the FDA, the device should only be used by obese adults who have a BMI of 30-40 who haven’t been able to lose weight through other methods, including diet and exercise. While the device is considered a safe option for those who are clinically obese, there are risks with any medical procedure.

A study of 160 patients using the ORBERA device showed a 10% rate of serious adverse events. These events included dehydration, infection, and gastric perforation with sepsis, but the most common serious adverse event was device intolerance, defined as intolerable nausea, vomiting, or reflux pain that led to early device removal. Since FDA approval there have also been reports of acute pancreatitis and spontaneous over-inflation, but these events are extremely rare.

Many doctors believe that the risks associated with obesity are higher than the risks associated with this procedure. And to put the gastric balloon device in perspective, most studies report a significantly higher rate of serious adverse events for gastric bypass surgery.

If you’re concerned about your weight, talk to your doctor about your lifestyle first. Most doctors consider weight loss procedures a last resort and will recommend diet, exercise, and nutritional counseling before recommending any type of medical procedure.