Gastroparesis, also known as delayed gastric emptying, is a medical condition that inhibits normal digestion by interfering with movement of food through the stomach and into the small intestine. The specific cause is unknown, but the disorder commonly occurs as a complication of diabetes as well as some surgeries.
August is Gastroparesis Awareness Month, a time to promote understanding of this disorder that can cause serious, debilitating symptoms. What do you need to know about gastroparesis, and what should you do if you believe you have the condition?
Signs of Gastroparesis
Both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes can cause damage to the vagus nerve, which regulates how food moves through the digestive tract. The damage occurs due to levels of blood glucose remaining high over an extended period, harming blood vessels that transport oxygen and nutrients to nerves.
Along with diabetes, certain neurologic conditions, medications or prior surgery to the stomach also may impact digestion and motility.
Symptoms of the disorder include nausea, heartburn, abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, dry heaves, vomiting, stomach spasms, abdominal distention and unpredictable blood-sugar levels.
In addition, individuals with gastroparesis may feel that the stomach is full after eating only a small amount of food, and they may have trouble finishing meals. Severity varies among individuals, but the symptoms often occur during or following a meal.
Gastroparesis can interfere with quality of life and can be debilitating and even life-threatening for sufferers. The disorder may worsen diabetes by making it more difficult to manage glucose levels. Food that stays in the stomach for too long can also result in bacterial overgrowth and can harden into solid masses known as bezoars, which can obstruct the stomach.
Diagnosing the Disorder
If you have heartburn and other symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease that do not respond to treatment, your board-certified gastroenterologist can conduct tests to check for gastroparesis. As part of the diagnosis process, your doctor also will take a full medical history and perform a physical examination.
The right screenings — which may include an ultrasound, upper endoscopy, upper GI series and blood test — can point to a diagnosis of gastroparesis and can help rule out other conditions. If your medical history and test results indicate the condition, your doctor will confirm the diagnosis by testing how quickly your stomach empties.
Treatment and Management
Once a diagnosis of gastroparesis is confirmed, your doctor will work with you to design a personalized course of treatment and management. The specifics of your treatment plan will depend on the intensity of your symptoms, along with any other medical conditions you have.
Some patients experience relatively mild symptoms that may be treated with changes to diet and lifestyle. Other people experience moderate or severe symptoms that require additional interventions, such as medication.
No single treatment will correct every symptom for every individual with gastroparesis, and treatments come with varying levels of risk. Your doctor will provide you with the information you need to assess the potential benefits and risks of any proposed treatment.
Your treatment may include one approach or a combination, including medications, dietary and lifestyle changes, surgery, and other procedures. In most cases, treatment does not provide a cure for gastroparesis, which generally is a chronic condition. However, the right treatment can help you manage the condition to give you the best possible quality of life.
If you believe you may have symptoms of gastroparesis, getting immediate diagnosis and treatment can help you avoid common complications of the condition. The board-certified gastroenterologists and other professional medical team members at Northeast Digestive Health Center are ready to assist you. Please contact us to schedule an appointment.