What is gastroparesis?
Gastroparesis, also called delayed gastric emptying, is a disorder that slows or stops the movement of food from the stomach to the small intestine. Normally, the muscles of the stomach, which are controlled by the vagus nerve, contract to break up food and move it through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The GI tract is a series of hollow organs joined in a long, twisting tube from the mouth to the anus. The movement of muscles in the GI tract, along with the release of hormones and enzymes, allows for the digestion of food. Gastroparesis can occur when the vagus nerve is damaged by illness or injury and the stomach muscles stop working normally. Food then moves slowly from the stomach to the small intestine or stops moving altogether.
What causes gastroparesis?
Most people diagnosed with gastroparesis have idiopathic gastroparesis, which means a health care provider cannot identify the cause, even with medical tests. Diabetes is the most common known cause of gastroparesis. People with diabetes have high levels of blood glucose, also called blood sugar. Over time, high blood glucose levels can damage the vagus nerve. Other identifiable causes of gastroparesis include intestinal surgery and nervous system diseases such as Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis. For reasons that are still unclear, gastroparesis is more commonly found in women than in men.
What are the symptoms of gastroparesis?
The most common symptoms of gastroparesis are nausea, a feeling of fullness after eating only a small amount of food, and vomiting undigested food—sometimes several hours after a meal. Other symptoms of gastroparesis include:
- gastroesophageal reflux (GER), also called acid reflux or acid regurgitation—a condition in which stomach contents flow back up into the esophagus, the organ that connects the mouth to the stomach
- pain in the stomach area
- abdominal bloating
- lack of appetite
How is gastroparesis diagnosed?
Gastroparesis is diagnosed through a physical exam, medical history, blood tests, tests to rule out blockage or structural problems in the GI tract, and gastric emptying tests. Tests may also identify a nutritional disorder or underlying disease. To rule out any blockage or other structural problems, the health care provider may perform one or more of the following tests:
- Upper gastrointestinal (GI) endoscopy.
This procedure involves using an endoscope—a small, flexible tube with a light—to see the upper GI tract, which includes the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum—the first part of the small intestine.
- Upper GI series.
During an upper GI series a person will stand or sit in front of an x-ray machine and drink barium, a chalky liquid. Barium coats the small intestine, making signs of gastroparesis show up more clearly on x rays. Gastroparesis is likely if the x ray shows food in the stomach after fasting.
- Gastric emptying scintigraphy.
The test involves eating a bland meal—such as eggs or an egg substitute—that contains a small amount of radioactive material. The test is performed in a radiology center or hospital by a specially trained technician and interpreted by a radiologist; anesthesia is not needed. An external camera scans the abdomen to show where the radioactive material is located. The radiologist is then able to measure the rate of gastric emptying at 1, 2, 3, and 4 hours after the meal. If more than 10 percent of the meal is still in the stomach at 4 hours, the diagnosis of gastroparesis is confirmed.
How is gastroparesis treated?
Treatment of gastroparesis depends on the severity of the person’s symptoms. In most cases, treatment does not cure gastroparesis, which is usually a chronic, or long-lasting, condition. Gastroparesis is also a relapsing condition—the symptoms can come and go for periods of time. Treatment helps people manage the condition so they can be as comfortable and active as possible.
Eating, Diet, and Nutrition
Changing eating habits can sometimes help control the severity of gastroparesis symptoms. A health care provider may suggest eating six small meals a day instead of three large ones. If less food enters the stomach each time a person eats, the stomach may not become overly full, allowing it to empty more easily. Chewing food well, drinking noncarbonated liquids with a meal, and walking or sitting for 2 hours after a meal—instead of lying down—may assist with gastric emptying.
A health care provider may also recommend avoiding high-fat and fibrous foods. Fat naturally slows digestion and some raw vegetables and fruits are more difficult to digest than other foods. Some foods, such as oranges and broccoli, contain fibrous parts that do not digest well. People with gastroparesis should minimize their intake of large portions of these foods because the undigested parts may remain in the stomach too long. Sometimes, the undigested parts form bezoars.
When a person has severe symptoms, a liquid or puréed diet may be prescribed. As liquids tend to empty more quickly from the stomach, some people may find a puréed diet helps improve symptoms. Puréed fresh or cooked fruits and vegetables can be incorporated into shakes and soups. A health care provider may recommend a dietitian to help a person plan meals that minimize symptoms and ensure all nutritional needs are met.
When the most extreme cases of gastroparesis lead to severe nausea, vomiting, and dehydration, urgent care may be required at a medical facility where IV fluids can be given.
Several prescription medications are available to treat gastroparesis. A combination of medications may be used to find the most effective treatment.
Metoclopramide (Reglan). This medication stimulates stomach muscle contractions to help with gastric emptying. Metoclopramide also helps reduce nausea and vomiting. The medication is taken 20 to 30 minutes before meals and at bedtime. Possible side effects of metoclopramide include fatigue, sleepiness, and depression. Currently, this is the only medication approved by the FDA for treatment of gastroparesis. However, the FDA has placed a black box warning on this medication because of rare reports of it causing an irreversible neurologic side effect called tardive dyskinesia—a disorder that affects movement.
Erythromycin. This antibiotic, prescribed at low doses, may improve gastric emptying. Like metaclopramide, erythromycin works by increasing the contractions that move food through the stomach. Possible side effects of erythromycin include nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps.
Other medications. Other medications may be used to treat symptoms and problems related to gastroparesis. For example, medications known as antiemetics are used to help control nausea and vomiting.
Botulinum toxin is a nerve blocking agent also known as Botox. After passing an endoscope into the stomach, a health care provider injects the Botox into the pylorus, the opening from the stomach into the duodenum. Botox is supposed to help keep the pylorus open for longer periods of time and improve symptoms of gastroparesis. Although some initial research trials showed modest improvement in gastroparesis symptoms and the rate of gastric emptying following the injections, other studies have failed to show the same degree of effectiveness of the Botox injections.
Gastric Electrical Stimulation
This treatment alternative may be effective for some people whose nausea and vomiting do not improve with dietary changes or medications. A gastric neurostimulator is a surgically implanted battery-operated device that sends mild electrical pulses to the stomach muscles to help control nausea and vomiting. This is only performed at very specialized centers.
If medications and dietary changes don’t work, and the person is losing weight or requires frequent hospitalization for dehydration, a health care provider may recommend surgically placing a feeding tube through the abdominal wall directly into a part of the small intestine called the jejunum. The surgical procedure is known as a jejunostomy. The feeding tube bypasses the stomach and delivers a special liquid food with nutrients directly into the jejunum. The jejunostomy is used only when gastroparesis is extremely severe.
When gastroparesis is so severe that dietary measures and other treatments are not helping, a health care provider may recommend parenteral nutrition—an IV liquid food mixture supplied through a special tube in the chest. This approach is a less preferable alternative to a jejunostomy and is usually a temporary treatment to get through a difficult period of gastroparesis.