Fact: Approximately 1 in 25 Americans suffers from gastroparesis
Gastric motility disorders are gastrointestinal conditions which affect the body's ability to digest food normally. A number of conditions fall into this category, including gastroparesis.Gastroparesis literally means paralyzed stomach. It is one of the most severe and complicated gastric motility disorders.
Gastroparesis is a condition in which your stomach cannot empty itself of food in a normal fashion. It can be caused by damage to the vagus nerve, which regulates the digestive system. A damaged vagus nerve prevents the muscles in the stomach and intestine from functioning, preventing food from moving through the digestive system properly.
Signs and symptoms of gastroparesis include:
- A feeling of fullness after eating just a few bites
- Abdominal bloating
- Abdominal pain
- Changes in blood sugar levels
- Lack of appetite
- Weight loss and malnutrition
It's not always clear what leads to gastroparesis. But in many cases, gastroparesis is believed to be caused by damage to a nerve that controls the stomach muscles (vagus nerve).
The vagus nerve helps manage the complex processes in your digestive tract, including signaling the muscles in your stomach to contract and push food into the small intestine. A damaged vagus nerve can't send signals normally to your stomach muscles. This may cause food to remain in your stomach longer, rather than move normally into your small intestine to be digested.
The vagus nerve can be damaged by diseases, such as diabetes, or by surgery to the stomach or small intestine.
Factors that can make it difficult for your stomach to empty properly include:
- Abdominal or esophageal surgery
- Infection, usually a virus
- Certain medications that slow the rate of stomach emptying, such as narcotic pain medications
- Certain cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy
- Scleroderma (a connective tissue disease)
- Nervous system diseases, such as Parkinson's or multiple sclerosis
- Hypothyroidism (low thyroid)
Gastroparesis can cause several complications, such as:
- Severe dehydration. Ongoing vomiting can cause dehydration.
- Malnutrition. Poor appetite can mean you don't take in enough calories, or you may be unable absorb enough nutrients due to vomiting.
- Undigested food that hardens and remains in your stomach. Undigested food in your stomach can harden into a solid mass called a bezoar. Bezoars can cause nausea and vomiting and may be life-threatening if they prevent food from passing into your small intestine.
- Blood sugar fluctuations. Although gastroparesis doesn't cause diabetes, inconsistent passage of food into the small bowel can cause erratic changes in blood sugar levels, which make diabetes worse. In turn, poor control of blood sugar levels makes gastroparesis worse.
- Decreased quality of life. Acute flare-up of symptoms can make it difficult to work.
Gastroparesis Treatment Options
Gastroparesis is a chronic (long-lasting) condition. This means that treatment usually doesn't cure the disease. There are few medications available, most of which treat symptoms of nausea, vomiting, pain, and reflux, but do not treat the underlying causes which keep the stomach from digesting properly. For this reason, they are often ineffective.
Most people try to manage their GP through diet changes. Eating six small meals a day of high calorie foods is easiest on the stomach. In spite of this, a patient may still experience extreme symptoms. Some patients cannot even hold down small sips of fluid, while others do well on small pieces of fish, chicken, and potatoes.
When diet modification and medications do not work, more extreme options include tube feedings and IV nutrition. Certain surgical procedures may be performed to help with some gastroparesis related complications. The introduction of Enterra Therapy by Medtronic is currently the only surgical option actually geared towards helping control nausea and vomiting.
In the most extreme cases, a full or partial gastrectomy may be necessary, or when the small bowel is also affected, a multi-visceral (4 or 5 organ) transplant may become the only remaining option.
There is some evidence that acupuncture can be helpful to people with gastroparesis, although more studies are needed. Various treatments that are used for nausea in other conditions may be helpful in treating nausea in gastroparesis, such as ginger and the use of a skin patch (transdermal drug delivery of anti-emetics). Acupressure, biofeedback and hypnotherapy may be helpful as well.
Want to learn more?
The following are organizations and/or websites dedicated to providing information and education surrounding Gastroparesis. These organizations are dedicated to research, education, awareness, and/or support. They are listed in Alphabetical order without any preference or prejudice. Listing these organizations is not a recommendation or referral in any regard for seeking treatment or consultation or support for treatment.