Think twice about lap-band surgery for weight loss

Consumer Reports News: February 25, 2011 08:58 PM

It used to be that to undergo lap-band surgery, in which an inflatable silicon band is wrapped around the stomach to make it smaller and control the urge to eat, you had to be seriously obese. That meant having a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher, or a BMI of 35 or higher plus a serious weight-related health problem, such as diabetes. But the Food and Drug Administration recently relaxed those rules: People with BMI of 30 plus a weight-related health issue are now candidates.

The company that makes the band, Allergan, has video testimonials on its website from people who say they’ve had the surgery and tout its benefits.

It even a held a contest to give away a free surgery to three "lucky" winners.

Blogs advertise the surgery as if it were a luxury vacation—“All inclusive.  We’ll beat or meet any advertised price! Only $3,999!”

But don’t rush to jump on the bandwagon. A closer look at the fine print reveals troubling risks. The firm’s own website reports a study that followed 299 people for three years after the  surgery. Twenty-five percent of them had a second operation to remove the band.  

That’s a lot of dissatisfied customers. Imagine if 25 percent of people who owned Toyotas were so dissatisfied that they called up their dealers and asked them to come and take their cars out of their driveways.

That’s not all. Nine percent needed a second operation to fix problems with the band.  Nine percent needed an additional procedure to fix a leaking or twisted access port, a design issue that the manufacturer says has been improved. Four people had the band erode into their stomachs.

Less serious side effects are also common. Half the people who had the procedure reported nausea and vomiting. Thirty-four percent suffered from gastroesophageal reflux, 24 percent of people experienced band slippage (which might stem from excessive vomiting), and  14 percent developed stomach blockages.

For some people, lap-band and other related weight-loss procedures can be appropriate. But surgery—particularly one with known risks—should never be taken lightly. So before you consider it, make sure you’ve exhausted other proven ways to lose weight. And make sure you and your doctor have a thorough discussion about the potential risks of the surgery, and make sure that it’s right for you. 

—Rosemary Gibson, author of “The Treatment Trap: How the Overuse of Medical Care is Wrecking Your Health and What You Can Do To Prevent It,” 2010.

Aaron Bailey

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