Gastroparesis (say: “gast-roe-par-EE-sus”) is a disorder that happens when your stomach muscles don’t work properly. It is sometimes called “delayed gastric emptying.” Normally, after you swallow food, your stomach muscles begin squeezing and tightening. (These movements are called contractions.) This crushes the food and moves it into the small intestine to continue the digestive process. If you have gastroparesis, your stomach muscles don’t contract properly. This can delay or prevent the process of crushing the food and sending it to the small intestine.
Symptoms of gastroparesis can be mild or severe, and may include:
These symptoms can suggest a lot of different problems and disorders. This can make gastroparesis hard to diagnose.
People who have diabetes are most at risk for gastroparesis because high blood sugar levels can damage the vagus (say: “vay-gus”) nerve. The vagus nerve tells your stomach muscles when to contract. Damage to this nerve is one of the most common causes of gastroparesis. Diabetes can also damage the blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients to the vagus nerve.
Other things that can lead to gastroparesis include:
Your doctor will start by examining you and asking you about your medical history. Be sure to tell your doctor about any prescription or over-the-counter medicines you are taking. You may have blood tests to check the quality of your blood and measure some chemical levels.
Your doctor might want to do some other tests to make sure you don’t have a blockage or another medical problem. These tests may include:
There is no cure for gastroparesis. Treatment will focus on treating any underlying problem that is causing the gastroparesis and controlling your symptoms. For example, your doctor may ask you to stop taking any drugs that can affect the digestive system. Don’t stop any medicine without first talking to your doctor. Your doctor also may want to treat any eating disorders, infections or other issues that could be causing gastroparesis.
Your doctor might also recommend one or more of the following:
Dietary changes. Since you might not be able to eat normally, it’s very important to make sure you’re getting enough nutrients. You may need to:
Medicine. Anti-nausea medicines called antiemetics can help with nausea and vomiting. Some other medicines, such as metoclopramide and erythromycin, can stimulate stomach muscle contractions. Each of these drugs has some drawbacks, including potentially serious side effects. You and your doctor need to discuss whether the benefits of taking these medicines outweigh the risks.
Feeding tube. If your gastroparesis is severe, you may need a feeding tube. This tube will be inserted through your skin into your small intestine. Or, it may be passed into your intestines through your nose or mouth. The tube allows nutrients to be delivered directly to your bloodstream. A feeding tube can also help when gastroparesis causes unstable blood sugar levels in people who have diabetes.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff