A tiny magnetic bracelet implanted at the base of the throat is greatly improving life for some people with chronic heartburn who need more help than medicine can give them.

It's a novel way to treat severe acid reflux, which happens when a weak muscle doesn't close after swallowing as it should. That lets stomach juices splash into the throat.

Drugs like Nexium and Prilosec reduce acid. But they don't fix the underlying problem. Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, afflicts up to 20 million Americans.

It's not just a quality-of-life issue: Chronic acid reflux can raise the risk of a condition called Barrett's esophagus, which in turn can raise the risk of throat cancer.

Rodd Foster had it so bad he used to sleep sitting up to keep his dinner down. Tricia Carr worried she would develop complications like the lung-scarring that killed her mother.

Both Californians got help from the new device, approved a year ago by the federal Food and Drug Administration and also sold in Europe. The treatment was "life-changing," said Foster, 61. "It's been 30 years since I've been able to eat normally and now I can eat anything anytime."

The Linx device, made by Torax Medical Inc., of St. Paul, Minn., is a ring of titanium beads with magnets inside. Doctors place it around the weak muscle at the base of the esophagus in a half-hour operation using a scope and "keyhole" incisions in the belly. The ring reinforces the weak muscle to keep it closed, yet is flexible and expands to let food pass when someone swallows. The ring is about a half-inch in diameter and expands to about 1.5 inches. People don't feel it once it is implanted.

The device costs $5,000; the operation can run $12,000 to $20,000, said Dr. John Lipham, a Los Angeles-area surgeon who consults for Torax. Many insurers cover the cost for patients who are not helped enough by drugs.

An expert with no financial ties to the company, Dr. Daniel DeMarco of Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, said early results with Linx have been "very impressive."

The most frequent side effect was difficulty swallowing, reported by 68 percent of patients right after surgery but only 11 percent after one year and 4 percent after three years, according to a New England Journal of Medicine study.

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