Gastroparesis Awareness Month

Gastroparesis is a disorder that occurs when the stomach takes too long to empty food. This disorder, also known as delayed gastric emptying, is a result of weak or abnormal muscles in the stomach. There’s no known cure for gastroparesis, but medical treatment can help you manage your symptoms. The exact cause of gastroparesis isn’t known, but it’s thought to have something to do with disrupted nerve signals in the stomach. It’s believed that the vagus nerve, which controls the movement of food through the digestive tract, becomes damaged and causes food to be digested slowly or not at all.

Gastroparesis means weakness of the muscles of the stomach. Gastroparesis results in poor grinding of food in the stomach into small particles and slow emptying of food from the stomach into the small intestine. When the contractions of the stomach’s muscles are weakened, food is not thoroughly ground and does not empty into the intestine normally. Since the muscular actions whereby solid food and liquid food are emptied from the stomach are slightly different, the emptying of solids and liquids follows different time courses, and there may be slow emptying of solid food (most common), solid and liquid food (less common), or liquid food alone (least common).

Gastroparesis can be caused either by diseases of the stomach’s muscles or the nerves that control the muscles, though often no specific cause is identified. The most common disease causing gastroparesis is diabetes mellitus, which damages the nerves controlling the stomach muscles. Gastroparesis also can result from damage to the vagus nerve, the nerve that controls the stomach’s muscles, that occurs during surgery on the esophagus and stomach. Scleroderma is an example of a disease in which gastroparesis is due to damage to the stomach’s muscles. Occasionally, gastroparesis is caused by reflexes within the nervous system, for example, when the pancreas is inflamed (pancreatitis).

The primary symptoms of gastroparesis are nausea and vomiting. Other symptoms of gastroparesis include bloating with or without abdominal distension, early satiety (feeling full quickly when eating), and in severe cases, weight loss due to a reduced intake of food because of the symptoms. Abdominal pain also is present frequently though the cause of the pain is unclear. Reduced intake of food and restriction of the types of food that are eaten can lead to nutritional deficiencies.

The most common method for diagnosing gastroparesis is a nuclear medicine test called a gastric emptying study, which measures the emptying of food from the stomach. For this study, a patient eats a meal in which the solid food, liquid food, or both contain a small amount of radioactive material. A scanner (acting like a Geiger counter) is placed over the stomach for several hours to monitor the amount of radioactivity in the stomach. In patients with gastroparesis, the food takes longer than normal (usually more than several hours) to empty into the intestine.

Gastroparesis is a chronic (long-lasting) condition. This means that treatment usually doesn’t cure the disease. But there are steps you can take to manage and control the condition. Some patients may benefit from medications. One of the best ways to help control the symptoms of gastroparesis is to modify your daily eating habits. People who have diabetes should try to control their blood sugar levels to minimize the problems of gastroparesis. A neuropsychiatric specialist is sometimes called in to address mental health concerns that can accompany this chronic disease. If you wake up sick every day and vomiting all the time, this disease can quickly move from a purely physical one to a psychiatric one, so it is good to treat the possible components of depression, anxiety, pain and so on, too.