Background Heartburn that persists despite proton-pump inhibitor (PPI) treatment is a frequent clinical problem with multiple potential causes. Treatments for PPI-refractory heartburn are of unproven efficacy and focus on controlling gastroesophageal reflux with reflux-reducing medication (e.g., baclofen) or antireflux surgery or on dampening visceral hypersensitivity with neuromodulators (e.g., desipramine). METHODS Patients who were referred to Veterans Affairs (VA) gastroenterology clinics for PPI-refractory heartburn received 20 mg of omeprazole twice daily for 2 weeks, and those with persistent heartburn underwent endoscopy, esophageal biopsy, esophageal manometry, and multichannel intraluminal impedance-pH monitoring. If patients were found to have reflux-related heartburn, we randomly assigned them to receive surgical treatment (laparoscopic Nissen fundoplication), active medical treatment (omeprazole plus baclofen, with desipramine added depending on symptoms), or control medical treatment (omeprazole plus placebo). The primary outcome was treatment success, defined as a decrease of 50% or more in the Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)-Health Related Quality of Life score (range, 0 to 50, with higher scores indicating worse symptoms) at 1 year. RESULTS A total of 366 patients (mean age, 48.5 years; 280 men) were enrolled. Prerandomization procedures excluded 288 patients: 42 had relief of their heartburn during the 2-week omeprazole trial, 70 did not complete trial procedures, 54 were excluded for other reasons, 23 had non-GERD esophageal disorders, and 99 had functional heartburn (not due to GERD or other histopathologic, motility, or structural abnormality). The remaining 78 patients underwent randomization. The incidence of treatment success with surgery (18 of 27 patients, 67%) was significantly superior to that with active medical treatment (7 of 25 patients, 28%; P=0.007) or control medical treatment (3 of 26 patients, 12%; P<0.001). The difference in the incidence of treatment success between the active medical group and the control medical group was 16 percentage points (95% confidence interval,-5 to 38; P=0.17). CONCLUSIONS Among patients referred to VA gastroenterology clinics for PPI-refractory heartburn, systematic workup revealed truly PPI-refractory and reflux-related heartburn in a minority of patients. For that highly selected subgroup, surgery was superior to medical treatment. (Funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs Cooperative Studies Program; ClinicalTrials.gov number, NCT01265550.
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