Gastroparesis

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.

Gastroparesis is thought to occur when the vagus nerve is damaged, causing the stomach muscles to stop working normally. 

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Gastroparesis?

  • Loss of appetite

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting undigested food

  • Burping

  • Gas

  • Regurgitation

  • Heartburn

  • Abdominal distention 

  • Pain in your abdomen or esophagus

  • Spasms of the stomach wall

  • Weight loss 

  • Malnutrition

  • Bezoar: a solid mass of indigestible material that accumulates in your digestive tract, sometimes causing a blockage

  • Erratic blood glucose levels (in diabetics)

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. 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. The test is performed at a hospital or outpatient center by a gastroenterologist—a doctor who specializes in digestive diseases. The endoscope is carefully fed down the esophagus and into the stomach and duodenum. A small camera mounted on the endoscope transmits a video image to a monitor, allowing close examination of the intestinal lining. A person may receive a liquid anesthetic that is gargled or sprayed on the back of the throat. An intravenous (IV) needle is placed in a vein in the arm if general anesthesia is given. The test may show blockage or large bezoars—solid collections of food, mucus, vegetable fiber, hair, or other material that cannot be digested in the stomach—that are sometimes softened, dissolved, or broken up during an upper GI endoscopy.

  • Upper GI series. An upper GI series may be done to look at the small intestine. The test is performed at a hospital or outpatient center by an x-ray technician, and the images are interpreted by a radiologist—a doctor who specializes in medical imaging. Anesthesia is not needed. No eating or drinking is allowed for 8 hours before the procedure, if possible. If the person has diabetes, a health care provider may give different instructions about fasting before the test. During the procedure, the 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. A person may experience bloating and nausea for a short time after the test. For several days afterward, barium liquid in the GI tract causes stools to be white or light colored. A health care provider will give the person specific instructions about eating and drinking after the test.

  • Ultrasound. Ultrasound uses a device, called a transducer, that bounces safe, painless sound waves off organs to create an image of their structure. The procedure is performed in a health care provider’s office, outpatient center, or hospital by a specially trained technician, and the images are interpreted by a radiologist; anesthesia is not needed. The images can show whether gallbladder disease and pancreatitis could be the cause of a person’s digestive symptoms, rather than gastroparesis.

  • 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.

  • SmartPill. The SmartPill is a small electronic device in capsule form. The SmartPill test is available at specialized outpatient centers. The images are interpreted by a radiologist. The device is swallowed and moves through the entire digestive tract, sending information to a cell-phone-sized receiver worn around the person’s waist or neck. The recorded information provides a detailed record of how quickly food travels through each part of the digestive tract.

  • Gastric emptying breath test. With this test, the person eats a special test meal that includes a natural material with a special type of carbon in it. Then, breath samples are taken over a period of several hours to measure the amount of the material in the exhaled breath. The results allow the health care provider to calculate how fast the stomach is emptying.

How is Gastroparesis Treated?

Since porphyria can cause nerve damage thus causing gastroparesis, it is essential to treat porphyria to prevent gastroparesis from progressing.

Diet

Changing eating habits can sometimes help control the severity of gastroparesis symptoms.

 

  • Small meals – 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.

  • Avoid high-fat and fibrous foods – 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 for the stomach to .

  • Eat soft foods – a diet of soft foods or even 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.

Medications

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.

Botulinum Toxin

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. The procedure may be performed at a hospital or outpatient center by a gastroenterologist. General anesthesia may be required. The gastroenterologist makes several tiny incisions in the abdomen and inserts a laparoscope—a thin tube with a tiny video camera attached. The camera sends a magnified image from inside the stomach to a video monitor, giving the gastroenterologist a close-up view of the tissues. Once implanted, the settings on the battery-operated device can be adjusted to determine the settings that best control symptoms.

Jejunostomy

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 procedure is performed by a surgeon at a hospital or outpatient center. Anesthesia is needed. 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.

https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/gastroparesis