Gastroparesis is a disorder that occurs when the stomach takes too long to empty food. This disorder leads to a variety of symptoms that can include nausea, vomiting, feeling easily full, and a slow emptying of the stomach, known as delayed gastric emptying.

Gastroparesis can be due to a variety of issues. There’s no known cure for gastroparesis, but medical treatment can help you manage your symptoms. Here’s what you need to know.

The symptoms of gastroparesis can range from mild to severe. They occur more often in some people than others.

The symptoms of gastroparesis can include:

While the exact cause of gastroparesis isn’t known, it’s thought to have something to do with disrupted nerve signals in the stomach.

It’s believed that when the nerves to the stomach become affected by a variety of factors, food can move through it too slowly.

Other problems, such as the stomach being overly sensitive to signals from the nervous system and the stomach not being able to react to a meal, are believed to also have a role in this condition.

Most types of gastroparesis fit into one of these categories:

Nearly 36 percent of gastroparesis cases aren’t linked to an identifiable cause. This is known as idiopathic. Many times this condition occurs after a viral illness, but it’s not fully understood.

Surgeries that involve the stomach or other digestive organs can also change signals to the stomach. About 13 percent of people with gastroparesis have the type known as postsurgical.

A common cause of damage to the nervous system that affects the digestion is diabetes, specifically diabetes that isn’t well-controlled.

This is because high blood sugar can damage nerves over time, including the vagus nerve, which controls the movement of food through the digestive system.

Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels by making changes to your diet and lifestyle is an effective way to help control symptoms of gastroparesis for people with diabetes.

Other health conditions are also associated with gastroparesis but are less common. These include:

The symptoms associated with gastroparesis, such as vomiting and decreased appetite, can cause dehydration and malnutrition. Dehydration and malnutrition can cause numerous problems, including:

Since gastroparesis causes food to stay in the stomach for too long, it can also cause an overgrowth of bacteria. The food can also harden into masses called bezoars that cause nausea, vomiting, and obstruction in the stomach.

Managing blood glucose levels is essential for people with diabetes. Gastroparesis can make it harder to manage those levels.

Other medications stimulate the stomach muscles and help with digestion. These include:

However, these drugs can cause side effects. Talk with your doctor to weigh the pros and cons of each medication to find out which one is right for you.

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask you questions about your medical history. In order to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms, your doctor will probably want to run some tests. These might include:

  • An ultrasound. Ultrasounds use sound waves to create an image of your organs. It can be used to rule out liver disease, pancreatitis, and gallbladder disease.
  • Blood tests. Blood tests can check for diabetes and other conditions.
  • An upper endoscopy. In an upper endoscopy procedure, your doctor guides a long, thin scope down your esophagus and into your stomach to check for blockages in the stomach and other conditions.

Once your doctor has ruled out other possible causes of your symptoms, they’ll order tests to evaluate how well your stomach empties. These tests can include a:

  • gastric emptying scintigraphy test. A gastric emptying scan involves eating a small amount of food with a harmless radioactive substance so your doctor can see how fast food is being digested and emptied from your stomach.
  • SmartPill. A SmartPill is a capsule that contains a device to track how fast food moves through your digestive tract.
  • carbon breath test. In this test, carbon dioxide production is tracked through the digestive system.

If your gastroparesis is caused by a condition like diabetes, the first step is to improve control of that underlying condition. After that, your doctor may recommend medications, diet changes, and even surgery in some cases.

Medication

Your doctor may prescribe one or more medications to treat your gastroparesis.

Medications to control nausea and vomiting caused by gastroparesis can include:

  • prochlorperazine (Compro)
  • ondansetron (Zofran)
  • promethazine (Phenergan)

Surgery

If your malnutrition or vomiting remains an issue even with the use of medications, your doctor may decide surgery is necessary. The goal of surgery for gastroparesis is to help your stomach empty more effectively.

A stomach stimulator known as a GES (gastric electrical stimulator) can be implanted into the stomach. This device is FDA-approved for use if medications don’t work.

One study of 33 people showed that in the first year after this surgery, up to 97 percent of people with a GES have less nausea and vomiting and are able to gain weight. The device may also improve life expectancy related to gastroparesis.

Diet changes

Seeing a dietitian — an expert on food and nutrition — is a common part of treatment for gastroparesis. A dietitian can suggest foods that your body can digest more easily, allowing your body to absorb more nutrients.

Your dietitian might make suggestions, including:

  • eating four to six meals per day
  • drinking high-calorie liquids
  • limiting alcohol and carbonated beverages
  • taking a daily multivitamin, if tolerated
  • limiting certain meats and dairy
  • eating well-cooked vegetables and fruit to lower the amount of fiber they contain
  • eating mostly low-fat foods
  • avoiding high-fiber foods, like broccoli and oranges
  • not lying down for bed immediately after a meal
  • substituting solid foods for puréed or liquid foods

A change in diet could be preferable to taking medication, as medicine tends to have undesirable side effects. If you have a severe case of gastroparesis, you might not be able to eat solid foods and drink liquids. In this case, you may need a feeding tube until your condition improves.

Botulinum toxin type A

Botulinum toxin type A is a toxin that reduces muscle activity. It’s been studied in gastroparesis and other gastrointestinal tract disorders.

Injection of the medication into the pyloric sphincter muscle improved this condition in some studies. However, due to contradictory results and the small size of most studies, scientists state that more research is needed before it can be recommended.

Vagal nerve stimulation

The vagus nerve is important to digestion. In 2018, research was underway to study the use of vagal nerve stimulation for people with gastroparesis. This study was looking at the effectiveness of self-administered nerve stimulation twice a day.

The hope is that vagal nerve stimulation will help reduce inflammation and nerve problems associated with gastroparesis.

If you suspect you have gastroparesis, talk to your doctor. They’ll do a thorough exam before diagnosing the condition. If you do have gastroparesis, work with your doctor to develop a treatment plan based on your particular health needs.

What is the life expectancy for someone with gastroparesis?

Though gastroparesis is not a life threatening condition, it can cause serious complications, including malnutrition and dehydration.

However, if symptoms are managed effectively, people with gastroparesis can expect to have a normal life expectancy.

How should I handle a flare-up of gastroparesis?

Making changes to your diet and lifestyle is an effective way to manage symptoms of gastroparesis.

Eating several smaller meals per day, limiting foods that are hard to digest, and swapping solid foods for liquid or pureed ingredients can all be beneficial.

Your doctor may also prescribe medications to help control symptoms like nausea or vomiting during a flare-up.

What are the symptoms of slow digestion?

Gastrointestinal issues like nausea, vomiting, bloating, and stomach pain are some of the most common symptoms of slow digestion.

Other symptoms may include loss of appetite, unintentional weight loss, or feeling full after eating only a small amount.

Can gastroparesis go away?

Gastroparesis is a chronic condition and there is currently no known cure.

However, symptoms can be managed effectively for many people using a combination of treatments, including medications, surgical procedures, and diet and lifestyle changes.

What foods should you avoid if you have gastroparesis?

People with gastroparesis should limit their intake of hard-to-digest foods to help reduce symptoms.

This includes foods high in fiber, such as raw fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

You should also limit fried foods, high-fat meat and dairy products, alcohol, and carbonated beverages to help manage symptoms.