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August is Gastroparesis Awareness Month

Posted on August 7, 2018

From time to time, we all get an occasional stomach ache. But if it goes on for a long time, you will want to see your doctor. One possible condition is gastroparesis, a chronic stomach disorder that occurs when your stomach takes too long to empty out food. Sometimes, this can be a complication of diabetes. 

Woman holding her stomach

Gastroparesis is caused when your vagus nerve, a nerve that controls how food moves through your digestive tract, is damaged. When this nerve doesn’t work well, food moves too slowly or stops moving.

In diabetics, the vagus nerve can become damaged if your blood sugar or blood glucose levels stay high over a long period of time. Other causes of vagus nerve damage may include an eating disorder such as anorexia, stomach surgery, and certain medications. 

Symptoms of Gastroparesis

Each person’s symptoms may vary, but many people with gastroparesis experience:

  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Feeling full too soon after you start eating
  • Belly (abdominal) bloating or pain
  • Heartburn or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)

How is gastroparesis diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will give you a physical exam and ask about your past health. He or she may also use other tests, including:

  • Blood tests. These tests check your blood counts and measure your chemical and electrolyte (mineral) levels.
  • Upper GI (gastrointestinal) series or barium swallow. This test checks the organs of the top part of your digestive system.  You will swallow a metallic fluid called barium. Barium coats the organs so that they can be seen on an X-ray. X-rays are then taken to check your digestive organs.
  • Radioisotope gastric-emptying scan. During this test, you will eat food containing a mildly radioactive substance, or radioisotope, that will show up on a scan. The amount of radiation is very small. It is not harmful. But it lets the radiologist see the food in your stomach during the scan. He or she can also see how quickly food leaves your stomach.
  • Gastric manometry (antroduodenal manometry). This test checks the muscle movement in your stomach and small intestine. A thin tube is passed down your throat into your stomach. This tube has a wire that measures the muscle movement of your stomach as it digests foods and liquids. This helps show how your stomach is working. It also shows if your digestion is slower than normal.
  • Upper endoscopy (EGD or esophagogastroduodenoscopy). This test looks at the lining or inside of your esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. This test uses a thin, lighted tube, called an endoscope. The tube has a camera at one end. The tube is put into your mouth and throat. Then it goes into your esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. Your healthcare provider can see the inside of these organs. He or she can also take a small tissue sample (biopsy) if needed.
  • Wireless capsule study. This test involves swallowing a wireless capsule that measures stomach emptying.
  • Carbon breath testing.
  • Scintigraphic gastric accommodation. This test measures your stomach contents before and after a meal. It also checks how well your stomach relaxes after you eat food.

Treating Gastroparesis

In most cases, gastroparesis is a long-term or chronic health problem. That means it can’t be cured, but you can manage the disease with a care plan.

If you have diabetes and gastroparesis, the main goal is to control your blood sugar levels. Likewise, any medicines that can cause gastroparesis will possibly be changed.

Your care plan may include:

  • Taking medicines. Your healthcare provider may prescribe a few medicines to see which works best.
  • Changing your diet. Changing your eating habits can also help control the disease. In some cases eating 6 smaller meals a day is more helpful than eating 3 larger ones. Some experts suggest having a few liquid meals a day. They suggest you do this until your blood glucose levels are stable and your gastroparesis is under control. You may also be told not to eat fatty and high-fiber foods. These can slow your digestion and be hard to digest. See your healthcare provider or a dietitian for the eating plan that is best for you.
  • Surgery. In some cases, you may need a type of surgery called a jejunostomy. A feeding tube is inserted through the skin on your abdomen into your small intestine. This tube lets nutrients go right into your small intestine instead of your stomach. This surgery is used only if your gastroparesis very severe.

Next steps

If you have the signs of symptoms of gastroparesis, make an appointment with your primary care doctor. Need help finding a physician? Visit our physician directory to find a doctor who also has privileges at LeConte Medical Center