ST. LOUIS - Imagine not being able to eat or drink without pain, nausea or vomiting. That's the reality for people with a condition known as achalasia. Now, there's a new procedure to fix the problem and there is no incision required.
Today, Terri Conley savors every bite of food. Not long ago, she wasn't able to swallow without pain.
"It's like wow, I can't eat. I really can't eat," said Conley, who lost 86 pounds, was malnourished, and had no energy to perform her job as a dental hygienist. "I went to the doctor, and they said, 'Oh, you know, take some Prilosec and get the stress out of your life,'"
Another doctor and an ultrasound, however, revealed Conley had achalasia — a condition where the base of the esophagus doesn't relax, so food can't pass through to the stomach. The result is pain and vomiting.
"In really severe cases, they can't even take liquids or swallow their own saliva," said Dr. Michael M. Awad, director, Washington University Institute for Surgical Education (WISE), Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Doctors at Washington University are performing a new procedure to fix the problem. They enter through the patient's mouth and make a small incision on the lining of the esophagus, cut the muscle in the lower esophagus to help it relax, allowing food to pass through.
"Since there's no pain fibers in the GI tract, people don't feel this," said Dr. Faris M. Murad, interventional endoscopist, director of endoscopic ultrasound, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis Children's Hospital.
Now, Conley can eat what she wants.
"When I finally got to eat what I wanted to eat, I wanted to make chicken enchiladas. That was the one big thing," Conley said.
The procedure was first performed in Japan. To date, there have been a little more than 400 incisionless procedures worldwide for achalasia. About one in 10,000 people have the condition. Doctors don't know what causes it, but some have theorized that it may be triggered by a virus.
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