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Weight Loss Surgery Helps Teens Shed Pounds and Regain Their Health

Teen girl running

Teens struggling with obesity are often prescribed dietary and lifestyle changes to lose weight and improve their health. But weight loss surgery can help, too. Research shows that teens can benefit from weight loss surgery to the same extent as adults — or even more. If you are the parent of a teen with obesity, who has not had success with diet and exercise, weight loss surgery could be a successful tool.

Dr. Edmond Wickham, endocrinologist and co-director of Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU's Healthy Lifestyles Center, says weight loss surgery for teens is most effective when performed in conjunction with core lifestyle changes. “That doesn’t mean an adolescent needs to have a perfect diet or exercise at the gym for hours a day before weight loss surgery,” he noted. “But we definitely want those habits established and part of a comprehensive treatment plan.”

The two most common surgeries for weight loss are gastric bypass and sleeve gastrectomy. Both can be done laparoscopically. Instead of requiring a large incision, surgeons use cameras to perform the procedure through several small incisions in the patient’s abdomen. Teens are typically back to normal activities after a short hospital stay.

Research reveals multiple benefits

Long-term studies that have followed adolescents who have had weight loss surgery reveal that, on average, they lose approximately 25 percent of their body weight. In many cases, they maintain the loss for at least five years.

One study, just released by the National Institutes of Health, showed that the majority of youth who had type 2 diabetes and underwent weight loss surgery went into remission for three or more years. The remission rates were higher than what has been seen in the adult population.

“This really challenges the thought that we need to wait until a patient with severe obesity becomes an adult,” Dr. Wickham said. “There could be benefits in intervening with weight loss surgery as part of a comprehensive treatment plan earlier in an individual’s life.”

Weight loss surgery in adolescents receives national support

The American Academy of Pediatrics supports the role of weight loss surgery and the comprehensive care of youth with severe obesity when applied in the right context.

“I think what was really important about the AAP’s statement is that the organization recognized that although there are large numbers of adolescents who may benefit from surgery, relatively few youth with severe obesity are actually being seen and evaluated for surgery,” Dr. Wickham noted.

Healthy Lifestyle Center is Center of Excellence

Our Healthy Lifestyle Center offers adolescent weight loss surgery and has been designated a “Center of Excellence” by the Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Association Quality Improvement Program. This falls in line with the AAP’s strong recommendation that should weight loss surgery be considered in youth, it must be done in conjunction with a comprehensive team of pediatric experts, including experts in nutrition, exercise and mental health for teens with obesity.

By having the surgery at a center like CHoR,  teens benefit from the expertise of pediatric medical specialists, including pediatric surgeons and psychologists. These experts are experienced and equipped to help families look at the risks and benefits of the surgery.

Weight loss surgery not only helps teens in real time, but it reduces their risk of developing dangerous, weight-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea and fatty liver disease.  

“Weight loss surgery may not be for everybody, but many times families aren’t even made aware that this could be a part of an effective treatment plan,” Dr. Wickham stated. “We don’t consider weight loss surgery a ‘magic bullet’ solution that’s done passively. Instead, we like to describe it as a magnifying glass, where it takes the changes a family is making and increases the impact they get from those changes.”

To listen to an interview with Dr. Edmond Wickham, endocrinologist and Co-Director at Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU's Healthy Lifestyles Center, please visit our podcast