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Today Show segment on ‘nerve freezing’ for weight loss leaves us cold. Here’s why.

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Mary Chris Jaklevic is a reporter-editor at HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets as @mcjaklevic.

Just when many Americans are pondering how they will fit into their bathing suits this summer, NBC’s Today Show has delivered an answer: nerve freezing.

A segment last week had host Megyn Kelly fawning over the “success” of a nurse named Melissa Donovan, who said she lost 25 pounds after undergoing an experimental procedure to “freeze” a branch of her vagus nerve, which carries signals between the gut and brain including feelings of hunger.

Kelly also interviewed interventional radiologist J. David Prologo, MD, who said Donovan’s body fat had dropped 14% since the procedure — called cryotherapy– was performed last July.

nerve freezing for weight lossWhile Prologo acknowledged the procedure was still being studied, Kelly didn’t hold back her enthusiasm, declaring it “awesome,” “incredible,” and “revolutionary.”

“This is crazy, and I love it!” she said. “Why does only Melissa get it? What about the rest of America?”

Industry funding isn’t mentioned

The rest of America might want to consider some facts that weren’t mentioned in the segment.

For one thing, it’s not clear if Donovan’s 25-pound weight loss is representative of the results most people could expect to achieve. She lost 25 pounds over eight months, but average weight loss among ten people who participated in the 90-day pilot study was probably about 7 to 10 pounds, based on the abstract.

Also, as an Emory University news release relates:

  • Researchers have only “demonstrated the safety” of the procedure, not its effectiveness.
  • The study was funded by HealthTronics/Endocare, a medical technology company that manufactures the ablation probes used for the treatment.
  • The study hasn’t been published nor peer-reviewed–it’s only been presented at a medical conference.

Also not mentioned: There are other possible explanations for why this woman lost weight, and good reason to believe she might regain that weight, noted Yoni Freedhoff, MD, a nutrition and weight management expert at the University of Ottawa and a HealthNewsReview.org contributor.

He said until this is compared with a sham procedure, “I think (a) real possibility is that what we’re seeing here is a placebo effect,” in which a patient believes her appetite will be different as a result of the procedure, leading her to eat less and lose weight.

Sham procedures are used to test the effectiveness of a surgery. One group of patients receives the surgery–including the real intervention (in this case, freezing of the nerve)–while a control group group receives surgery but without the therapy being tested. The sham version serves as the placebo. 

How will patients be ‘transformed?’

According to Emory’s news release, the affected nerve “will fully regrow back after eight to 12 months. Prologo hopes that the newly regenerated nerve will be less hyperactive, providing a new set point for patients.”

On the show Prologo said, “It will keep you on your diet long enough to gain some momentum.”

He further explained: “The hope is that by then new habits will be ingrained and the person’s life will be transformed.”

There’s not much discussion of just how patients’ lives will be “transformed.” After all, permanent weight loss isn’t just about hunger; it requires developing alternative strategies to deal with stress and other triggers that lead to overeating.

Freedhoff said once the nerve grows back and normal hunger signals resume, “there’s zero reason to think that the patients’ ‘new habits,’ established during a time of lesser hunger, won’t dissolve.”

‘A 2-minute freeze and a Band-Aid’

That point gets buried as Kelly makes this seem like a one-step process, telling viewers: “Can you imagine you could lose weight simply by freezing the nerve that tells your brain you want to eat?”

For his part, Prologo calls the procedure a matter of “a 2-minute freeze and a Band-Aid over the puncture site.”

To her credit, Kelly asked about possible side effects and whether another shot will be needed once the nerve grows back.

But overall, there wasn’t much exploration of these issues. One significant potential side effect left unexplored is gastroparesis, or when the stomach empties slowly, sometimes referred to as a “paralyzed stomach.” It can occur after damage to the vagus nerve and can cause nausea, vomiting, bloating and pain.

The news release mentions that the procedure is done “with the help of live images from a CT scan.” And on the show, Kelly said Donovan’s body-mass index was checked with a “CT scan.” That makes us wonder: How much radiation exposure is involved in this procedure? That question wasn’t asked.

A pitch for the show’s web site

It should be noted that Today wasn’t the only media outlet that jumped on this flimsy story. ABC News, the New York Post,  and Time also covered it.

At the end of the segment, Kelly directed viewers to the Today show web site for more information. “I can feel the web site crashing,” she declared.

We tried that, but couldn’t find any additional information about this procedure on the show’s web site, or even a link to Emory’s news release.

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Simon Watson

April 12, 2018 at 3:19 am

Well when I read nerve freezing in the title of your article, I thought immediately that this “is just another fad”. But upon seeing the pictures of the gentleman I am forced to reconsider my opinion on it. Then, I go on to read that not much exploration of these types of “treatment. I just wonder if there is going to be some kind of health catch?

Raj Kumar

April 16, 2018 at 2:34 pm

Hi very interesting indeed, but the expert from the article says that, “. . .what we are seeing here is a placebo effect,” then goes on later to say that once the nerve grows back normal hunger signals will resume, and patients habits will “dissolve.” Which is it?? It seems like the “expert” is just looking to say something negative and get his name in print. . .