During the month of August, healthcare providers, patients, family, and community members aim to raise awareness, support, and funding for Gastroparesis Awareness Month. Most people are not familiar with this disease or how it affects and limits a person’s life. In an effort to help you understand this condition, let’s talk about the causes, symptoms, treatment, and ways to manage a healthy life while living with gastroparesis.
What is Gastroparesis?
Gastroparesis, also called “delayed gastric emptying,” is a rare gastrointestinal disorder that affects the rate at which the stomach empties its contents. In a healthy person, the stomach may take four hours to digest its contents. For a person with gastroparesis, that process can take days. The normal, spontaneous contractions (motility) of the stomach are regulated by the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain to the abdomen. When this nerve is damaged in some way, it affects motility in the stomach and other gastric processes. Approximately 80 percent of gastroparesis cases occur in women.
What are the Symptoms?
Gastroparesis shares many common symptoms with other gastrointestinal disorders, like nausea, abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas, and acid reflux. Most individuals with the condition report feeling full after eating only a few bites of food. The most common symptoms reported are nausea, vomiting, and chronic abdominal pain. The onset of nausea occurs just a few hours after eating where even a few sips of water can induce vomiting.
Some Possible Causes
For most patients diagnosed with gastroparesis, the cause is unknown or “idiopathic.” However, certain diseases and conditions can lead to the development of this disorder. Diabetes is the most common precursor to gastroparesis. Long-term diabetes causes abnormalities in the nervous system, which can slow the motility of the gastric system, delaying the emptying of the stomach. Other known causes of gastroparesis include eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, lupus, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. Certain medications, such as narcotics and pain killers, can also impair gut motility.
The diagnosis of gastroparesis can be a challenge since the symptoms are common to other gastrointestinal disorders. Once a thorough medical history has been taken and an exam performed, doctors generally run a series of tests. Tests can include a full blood workup, an endoscopy, which is a scope placed down the esophagus to look at the stomach, and an ultrasound. But to confirm gastroparesis, a stomach-emptying test needs to be performed to measure the motility and emptying process of the gut. The gastric-emptying test, also called gastric emptying scan, uses radioactive material ingested by the patient. This process allows a camera to follow the material through the body as it tracks the emptying process.
Once gastroparesis has been diagnosed, dietary changes are the first step in the treatment of the condition. There is not a specific diet for individuals with gastroparesis, but it’s recommended that they eat a low-fat, low-fiber diet and eat five or six small meals throughout the day. Anything that is difficult to digest, like raw vegetables and whole grains, are discouraged and should not be eaten. Carbonated sodas cause bloating and gas, while alcohol and cigarettes are also not recommended.
Some medications can be prescribed to alleviate the symptoms of gastroparesis. In severe cases, when dietary changes and medications aren’t helpful, surgery may be required. The primary concern is restoring an individual’s ability to draw nutrients from the digestion of food and to prevent dehydration. In some cases, a tube is placed in the small intestine, a procedure called a jejunostomy. Food bypasses the slow-emptying stomach and delivers nutrients directly to the small bowel. Another option is gastric electrical stimulation, which helps to relieve the symptoms of nausea and vomiting.
Gastroparesis is a long-term condition, and those affected by it work daily to improve their quality of life. While there is still much to learn about gastroparesis, continued research, awareness, support, better diagnosis, and treatment of the disorder can lead to a better quality of life.