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New for weight loss: balloon therapy

Intragastric balloons offer alternatives to gastric bypass and other surgical procedures

by Jim DrydenDecember 29, 2015

Robert Boston

Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital are offering a newly approved, nonsurgical therapy to help people lose weight. The therapy involves placing special balloons into the stomach and inflating them to give patients the feeling of being full after eating small meals.

Washington University gastroenterologists at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital have two options for so-called intragastric balloons in overweight patients who don’t want surgery but have not been able to achieve adequate weight loss with changes in diet and lifestyle.

Patients can select a single intragastric balloon device called ORBERA™, or the ReShape™Dual Balloon system. Both are potential substitutes for gastric bypass and other bariatric surgical procedures in patients who need to lose large amounts of weight for health reasons but are not candidates for surgery or don’t want to take that step. The balloons are inserted with an endoscope that is guided into the patient’s mouth and to the stomach.

“Despite the fact that bariatric surgery is very effective, there are some people who just don’t want it or are not surgery candidates,” said Shelby Sullivan, MD, assistant professor of medicine and director of bariatric endoscopy in the Division of Gastroenterology. “During the clinical research we conducted, we found that many patients equate surgery to an admission of failure, but they see the balloons more like a tool to help with weight loss the way glasses can help improve eyesight.”

The balloons remain in the stomach for six months. During that time, patients also receive intensive lifestyle therapy, which then continues for a year.

Shelby Sullivan, MD, inserts an endoscope into the mouth of a patient, routing a balloon to the stomach. There it is inflated to give the patient the feeling of being full after eating.Robert Boston
Shelby Sullivan, MD, inserts an endoscope into the mouth of a patient, routing a balloon to the stomach. There it is inflated to give the patient the feeling of being full after eating.

“When we take out the balloon, the program team helps patients maintain positive behavior changes they made while the balloon, or balloons — depending on which system a patient chooses — were in the stomach,” Sullivan said.

Otherwise, she explained, once a balloon has been removed, some people may take up old eating habits and start packing on pounds again. After a year, patients have the option to enroll in a long-term follow-up program to help maintain weight loss.

“Even after bariatric surgery, some surgery patients end up regaining significant amounts of weight,” she said. “So there’s no perfect therapy out there.”

If a patient begins to gain back too much weight, the option exists to insert another balloon.

At present, insurance does not cover the balloon therapy, though some insurance companies pay for an initial pre-procedure exam meeting with the doctor. Some insurers also pay partially for medications, laboratory tests or other referrals, if necessary.

Sullivan and her colleagues are holding monthly patient information sessions about the balloon therapy at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital. For more information, to sign up for a session, or to schedule an appointment with a Washington University gastroenterologist, call 314-542-9318 or toll-free, 844-542-9378, or visit the program’s website.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient-care institutions in the nation, currently ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Jim retired from Washington University in 2023. While at WashU, Jim covered psychiatry and neuroscience, pain and opioid research, orthopedics, diabetes, obesity, nutrition and aging. He formerly worked at KWMU (now St. Louis Public Radio) as a reporter and anchor, and his stories from the Midwest also were broadcast on NPR. Jim hosted the School of Medicine's Show Me the Science podcast, which highlights the outstanding research, education and clinical care underway at the School of Medicine. He has a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.