Gastroparesis is a condition characterized by slow motility of the muscles in the stomach. It prevents the emptying of food in a normal manner. This causes food to stay in the stomach for too long.
Gastroparesis in itself isn’t life-threatening, but it can cause life-threatening complications. The exact cause of this disease in unclear, yet it’s believed to stem from injury to the vagus nerve.
Surgery to the abdomen or small intestines can also cause injury to the vagus nerve. Other possible causes of gastroparesis include an infection or the use of certain medications, such as narcotics and antidepressants.
Gastroparesis doesn’t always cause signs or symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they typically include the following:
- acid reflux
- stomach pain
- lack of appetite
- weight loss
- feeling of fullness after eating small amounts of food
For some people, gastroparesis affects the quality of their life, but is not life-threatening. They might be unable to complete certain activities or work during flare-ups. Others, however, face potentially deadly complications.
Gastroparesis can make diabetes worse because the slow movement of food from the stomach to the intestines can cause unpredictable changes in blood sugar. Blood sugar can drop as food remains in the stomach, and then spike when food finally travels to the intestines.
These fluctuations make it extremely difficult to control blood sugar, which can lead to serious problems such as heart attack, stroke, and damage to vital organs.
Dehydration and malnutrition
Persistent vomiting with gastroparesis can also lead to life-threatening dehydration. And because the condition affects how well the body absorbs nutrients, it can lead to malnutrition, which is also potentially life-threatening.
Some people with gastroparesis even develop masses in their stomach caused by undigested food. These masses — known as bezoars — can cause a blockage in the small intestines. If not promptly treated, blockages can cause a deadly infection.
Complication of cancer
Gastroparesis doesn’t cause cancer, but it can occur as a complication of cancer. When symptoms of gastroparesis occur after a cancer diagnosis, these symptoms are often attributed to chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, or cancer cachexia.
Cancer cachexia refers to weight loss and muscular loss that occurs in those who have advanced cancer. Gastroparesis has been seen in people who have tumors in the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract and pancreatic cancer.
There’s no cure for gastroparesis. It’s a chronic, long-term condition that can’t be reversed.
But while there isn’t a cure, your doctor can come up with a plan to help you manage symptoms and reduce the likelihood of serious complications.
Other GI conditions can mimic symptoms of gastroparesis. To confirm a diagnosis, your doctor will complete a physical examination, ask about your symptoms, and use one or more of the following tests:
- Gastric emptying study. You’ll eat a small, light meal tagged with a radioactive material. This allows your doctor to track how fast food travels from your stomach to the intestines.
- Smart pill. You’ll swallow a capsule that tracks food as it travels through your intestines. This test helps your doctor determine how fast or slow you’re able to empty your stomach. The capsule leaves your body during a bowel movement.
- Upper gastrointestinal endoscopy. This test captures images of the upper GI (stomach, esophagus, and the beginning of the small intestines). Your doctor inserts a long tube with a tiny camera at the end down your throat to rule out conditions that cause similar symptoms, like a peptic ulcer.
- Ultrasound. This test uses high-frequency sound waves to create images within the body. This test is also used to rule out conditions that cause similar symptoms, such as problems with your gallbladder or kidney.
- Upper gastrointestinal series. This is another test to examine the upper GI and look for abnormalities. You’ll drink a white, chalky substance to coat the walls of your GI, which then allows for an X-ray of problem areas.
Your doctor may recommend additional tests based on your symptoms. For example, if you have signs of diabetes, such as elevated blood sugar, extreme thirst, or frequent urination.Your doctor may order a fasting blood sugar test or an oral glucose tolerance test.
This is necessary because treating gastroparesis starts with treating any underlying condition.
Various treatments can help manage gastroparesis and improve the quality of your life. Treatment depends on the severity of the condition and your specific symptoms.
To start, your doctor may suggest medication to control nausea and vomiting, such as prochlorperazine (Compro) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl).
There’s also the option of medication to stimulate the stomach muscles like metoclopramide (Reglan) and erythromycin (Eryc).
If the condition doesn’t improve with medication, your doctor may recommend surgically placing a feeding tube through your abdomen into the small intestines to ensure you receive nutrients.
Another surgical option is gastric electrical stimulation. This procedure uses electric shock to stimulate the stomach muscles. Or, your doctor may recommend gastric bypass.
Gastric bypass involves creating a small pouch from the stomach and connecting this pouch directly to the small intestines. This promotes faster emptying of the stomach. But since gastric bypass is also weight-loss surgery, your doctor may only suggest this procedure if you have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more.
Diet also plays a big role in the treatment of gastroparesis. As a matter of fact, many people are able to manage the condition with dietary changes.
Your doctor will likely refer you to a dietitian who can provide guidance on foods to eat and avoid.
Typically, you’ll want to avoid high-fiber foods since these can slow digestion, as well as high-fat foods and alcohol, which can slow down stomach emptying.
Dietary tips to help you cope with this condition include:
- Eat six small meals a day.
- Eat slowly and chew food thoroughly.
- Remain upright for at least two hours after eating.
- Go for a walk after eating.
- Cook fruits and vegetables.
- Drink between 1 and 1.5 liters of water daily to avoid dehydration.
- Take a multivitamin.
Some of the methods to treat gastroparesis may also prevent the disease. For example, a low-fat, low-fiber diet can promote healthy digestion and the movement of food through the stomach.
If you have diabetes, keeping your blood sugar in your target range helps prevent damage to the vagus nerve.
It also helps to eat small, frequent meals throughout the day. Eating three large meals a day can delay stomach emptying, as does drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes.
You should also incorporate regular physical activity, which helps the stomach empty faster. Go for walk, ride your bike, or join a gym.
There’s no cure for gastroparesis, but medication and dietary changes can make living with this condition easier and improve the quality of your life. Speak with your doctor or dietitian to learn which foods to eat and avoid.
Notify your doctor if you experience signs of dehydration, malnutrition, or a worsening of nausea and vomiting, which could indicate a mass in the stomach.