Gastroparesis

Gastroparesis is when your stomach muscles don't contract they way they should to push food through your digestive system. The food moves very slowly through your system or stops moving altogether.

You might have an upset stomach or vomiting if you have gastroparesis. Your blood sugar level might rise and your body might not get the nutrition it needs.

Gastroparesis cannot be cured, but our gastroenterologists can help improve your symptoms by suggesting diet changes and medication.

You Are at Risk for Gastroparesis if You Have:

  • Diabetes
  • Abdominal infection
  • Injury from abdominal surgery
  • Anorexia or bulimia
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Scleroderma

You also are at risk if you:

  • Are being treated for cancer
  • Take medications that slow down digestion, including antidepressants and pain medicine

Doctors aren't always sure what causes gastroparesis. It may be caused by damage to a nerve that goes from the brain to the stomach. This nerve (vagus nerve) sends signals for the muscles involved with digestion to work. Diabetes, injury and diseases such as Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis can cause damage to the nerve.

Symptoms

Gastroparesis can cause symptoms, including:

  • Feeling full even when you've eaten little
  • Low appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Stomach bloating
  • Heartburn or reflux
  • Malnutrition
  • Changes in your blood sugar

If you have symptoms that you cannot explain or that worry you, see your doctor.

Diagnosis

Your doctor may order tests to find out if you have gastroparesis or another problem. The tests include:

  • Stomach-emptying (gastric-emptying) test – This test measures how long it takes food to move through your stomach. You eat food that has a small amount of radioactive substance. Your doctor places a camera on top of your stomach to track the time as the food moves along.
  • Upper endoscopy – Your doctor inserts a thin tube down your throat and into your stomach and small intestine. The tube has a tiny camera at the end. The camera lets your doctor to see what is going on inside of your body.
  • Capsule endoscopy – You swallow a capsule that contains a tiny camera. It takes pictures along your digestive tract. The capsule leaves your body through a bowel movement and can be flushed. The pictures show your doctor what is going on in your digestive system.
  • Upper GI series – You stand or sit in front of an X-ray machine and drink a chalky liquid (barium). You fast (no eating or drinking) for hours before the test. The barium coats the inside of your intestines and helps your doctor see if food is still in your stomach even after fasting.
  • Ultrasound – Your doctor rubs an ultrasound wand over your abdomen. Ultrasound uses sound waves to create pictures of your insides. This test helps your doctor rule out problems. Sometimes ultrasound is done by passing a tube down your esophagus and into your stomach. The tube has a tiny camera so your doctor can see what is happening in hard-to-reach areas. This is called endosonography/endoscopic ultrasound (EUS).

Treatment

It's important to see a doctor if you have symptoms of gastroparesis. It can get worse if you don't have treatment. Food can get stuck in your stomach and harden or cause harmful bacteria to grow. You might not get the benefits from the food you eat, and your blood sugar can rise. This is especially bad if you have diabetes.

Treating gastroparesis depends on its cause. Your doctor might suggest medication and changes to your diet. You might work with a dietitian to learn how to eat to make you feel better.

Dietary changes may include eating:

  • Less food more often
  • Soups or pureed foods
  • Low-fat foods, with small amounts of fatty foods introduced slowly
  • Cooked fruit and vegetables instead of raw
  • Few fibrous fruits and vegetables

Your doctor or dietitian may recommend you go for a walk after you eat.

If you cannot eat at all, you may need to be fed through a tube inserted through your skin into your small intestine. Or, the tube can go through your nose or mouth to your intestine.

Your doctor may prescribe a drug to control your nausea or help your stomach muscles work better. Some patients need surgery.

How to Prevent Gastroparesis

You can't prevent gastroparesis except by avoiding diseases, conditions and medications that contribute to it. This includes diabetes and eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia).

Find an Aurora Health Care GI Specialist