Gastroparesis | Digestive Health | Loyola Medicine

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Overview and Facts about Gastroparesis

Gastroparesis, also called delayed gastric emptying, is a digestive health condition that affects the movement of the stomach muscles. Normally, muscles in the lining of the stomach contract forcefully to propel food down the digestive tract. In gastroparesis, the stomach’s ability to digest food is interrupted and the stomach cannot be properly emptied.

Symptoms and Signs of Gastroparesis

Because gastroparesis interferes with normal digestive health, symptoms most commonly relate to poor nutrition or problems with the digestive tract. Many patients with gastroparesis, however, do not experience any symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of gastroparesis:

  • Abdominal bloating and pain
  • Acid reflux
  • Changes in blood sugar levels
  • Feeling full after a few bites
  • Lack of appetite
  • Malnutrition
  • Nausea or vomiting (often undigested food)
  • Weight loss

Symptoms related to digestion are also associated with different medications that can slow down the emptying of the stomach. Patients with gastroparesis who rely on opioid pain relievers, select antidepressants and blood pressure or allergy medications may find their condition worsened. 

Causes and Risk Factors of Gastroparesis

It is not always clear why people develop gastroparesis, but it traditionally affects far more women than men. Gastroparesis is often considered a complication of diabetes or surgery in which the vagus nerve, which controls the stomach muscles, is damaged.

Risk factors for developing gastroparesis include:

  • Connective tissue diseases, such as scleroderma or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
  • Diabetes
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Medications (opioid pain relievers, antidepressants, blood pressure drugs, etc.)
  • Nerve conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis
  • Surgery in the abdomen or esophagus
  • Viral infections

Tests and Diagnosis of Gastroparesis

To diagnose gastroparesis and rule out other conditions with similar symptoms, a series of tests may be ordered by the doctor. A common test is the gastric emptying study, where a patient ingests a small amount of radioactive material and a scanner follows it to determine the rate at which the stomach is emptied. Another useful test is an endoscopy of the upper gastrointestinal tract, which is a visualization technique that can reveal abnormalities or diagnose different conditions affecting digestive health.

Treatment and Care for Gastroparesis

For many, the first step in treating gastroparesis is repairing a patient’s digestive health. Working with a dietitian can help manage specific dietary changes and ensure adequate nutrition. This includes modifying how you eat (smaller meals, chewing more thoroughly) and choosing foods that are easier to digest. Medications may be recommended to help stimulate the muscles of the stomach or to help ease symptoms of nausea and vomiting.

For patients who are unable to tolerate any food at all, surgery may be recommended. Feeding tubes may be placed in the small intestine or an endoscopic procedure may be used to place a stent between the opening of the stomach and small intestine. A newer therapy called gastric stimulation involves surgically implanting a device similar to a pacemaker that emits electrical currents to stimulate the stomach muscles, helping process food more efficiently.