The majority of adult Americans likely experience reflux at least monthly, and several times more often for some, explains Raman Muthusamy, MD, MAS, Professor of Medicine and Medical Director of Endoscopy at UCLA Health. “It can be quite debilitating, and the management options for reflux have been mostly lifestyle changes, in terms of diet, exercise, timing of meals, and losing weight,” he adds. “Medications are available to treat GERD, including antacids for mild reflux, H2 blockers, and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), but many patients have concerns about those medications, particularly proton pump inhibitors, in terms of long-term use.”

Data indicate that long-term use of PPIs—medications that reduce stomach acid production by inhibiting the stomach’s H⁺/K⁺ ATPase proton pump—is generally not advised. “We know that PPIs have been associated with certain conditions, such as calcium malabsorption and risk of infection, that can potentially affect patients with GERD,” says Dr.  Muthusamy. “And many patients simply don’t like to take a medication over the long term. Additionally, there are occasionally side effects associated with individual drugs that may make some patients reticent to take them or to avoid them altogether. All of these can make patients desire an alternative to taking these medicines over a long period.”

PPI Alternatives

Although FDA approvals for PPIs were for short-term use, based on how the trials supporting their approvals were conducted, data do exist to show they can be used long term, according to Dr. Muthusamy. “In general, they do more good than harm. Unfortunately, many patients are prescribed these medications and then just seem to stay on them. While I think they’re generally safe, there are some potential concerns of side effects and interactions that should cause clinicians to ensure they precisely choose those patients who would benefit most from their use.”

To that end, Dr. Muthusamy notes that symptoms that do not respond well to medication should be an indication for primary care physicians to order additional testing. “PPIs only block the production of acid. Many patients’ chief complaint focuses on regurgitation—the backwash of liquid, which can be irritating. PPIs don’t address the mechanical barrier to prevent this, only reduce the acid concentration in that fluid. Patients who have hoarseness, perhaps asthma, or when medicines that worked for a while but not as well now, may be signs it’s time that it’s time to consider additional testing and perhaps alternative therapies.”

Transoral Incisionless Fundoplication

Surgical options are available for GERD, and the most commonly used is called Nissen fundoplication. However, this procedure may cause significant side effects, particularly difficulty belching and swallowing after the procedure, which can lead to gas bloat. This side effect affects between one-quarter and one-half of patients who undergo Nissen fundoplication. “Another alternative to consider is transoral incisionless fundoplication (TIF),” says Muthusamy. “This procedure creates mechanical barrier to reflux but, perhaps, without the side effect of invasive surgery. TIF is an endoscopic, minimally invasive method to perform a fundoplication. In patients with small hiatal hernia (under 2 cm), we can perform TIF as a direct procedure, so it can be completed entirely endoscopically.”

The straight TIF procedure allows clinicians to “essentially wrap the fundus around the lower esophagus by grabbing some tissue, essentially pulling down a little bit of the esophagus into the stomach, and then securing that wrap with some fasteners,” explains Dr. Muthusamy. “We typically create a 270 degree wrap and typically place 20-30 fasteners during the TIF procedure. It takes, in experienced hands, around 40-60 minutes to perform.”

Experience suggests, according to Dr. Muthusamy, that patients with GERD are opting to try TIF because of promising data in regard to alleviating symptoms, eliminating the need for medication, and avoiding the side effects of traditional fundoplication. “We’ve been trying to provide endoscopic anti-reflux alternatives for 20 years, with a number of technologies that have been proposed and subsequently withdrawn or failed due to lack of adoption of concerns about efficacy or safety,” he says. “There has been a real need for this option, but like many things, when there are two alternatives—in this case, medications and surgery—that are relatively effective, it becomes difficult to compete newer devices. So, it’s really taken about 20 years to come up with some good, tried and true techniques. I’m hopeful that we’ll see additional variations and modifications, because we know there are hundreds of millions of people in our country who suffer from GERD on a regular basis, many of whom are probably looking for alternatives to medicines. As we can provide them with safe, durable, and effective techniques, I suspect that the number of patients who choose to consider these techniques will only grow in the years to come.”