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If you’ve been experiencing unexplained digestive discomfort, it’s worth looking into in case there is a chronic condition causing your symptoms. For example, gastroparesis is a condition that affects the normal spontaneous movement of your stomach muscles.
We’re here to explain gastroparesis, its symptoms, possible causes and treatment methods to help you find relief.
What is Gastroparesis?
Normally, strong muscle contractions push food through your digestive tract. But if you have gastroparesis, your stomach’s motility, or movement, is slowed down or doesn’t work at all. The lack of muscle movement prevents your stomach from properly emptying.
Gastroparesis can hinder normal digestion, which can cause nausea, vomiting and stomach pain. It can also cause nutrition problems and impact blood sugar levels.
While some people with gastroparesis don’t experience noticeable symptoms, here are signs you may have it. If any of these red flags sound familiar, reach out to your health care provider:
- Abdominal bloating
- Abdominal pain
- Acid reflux
- Changes in blood sugar levels
- Feeling full after eating just a few bites
- Lack of appetite
- Weight loss
Causes of Gastroparesis
The cause of gastroparesis is typically not known. It can be a diabetes complication, or some patients develop gastroparesis after surgery. Other factors that may increase your risk of gastroparesis include viral infections, diseases that affect your nervous system (such as Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis) or an underactive thyroid.
Certain medications, such as opioid pain relievers, some antidepressants and high blood pressure and allergy medications can lead to slower gastric emptying and cause similar symptoms. For those who already have gastroparesis, these medications can worsen their condition.
Stages of Gastroparesis
There are three stages of gastroparesis: mild, moderate and severe. These stages are based on the intensity of your symptoms, how slowly your stomach empties and the complications you may be experiencing.
Mild: Your stomach may empty slowly. You likely won’t notice any symptoms that significantly impact your daily life; you may only experience mild discomfort if any at all.
Moderate: When your condition has progressed to this level, symptoms have become more noticeable, leading to changes in your eating habits and causing discomfort.
Severe: At this point, symptoms and side effects are more severe, leading to dehydration, malnutrition, significant weight loss and a substantial impact on your quality of life.
If you’re experiencing persistent stomach discomfort, informing your health care provider of your concerns is the first step toward finding relief. Your primary care provider will likely order lab and imaging tests and refer you to a gastroenterology specialist in your area for further testing.
Your gastroenterologist may recommend one or more of these tests:
One important way to determine if your symptoms are due to gastroparesis is with scintigraphy. This test requires you to eat a light meal that contains a small amount of radioactive material. A special scanner will then track the material’s movement through your abdomen to monitor the speed of your digestion.
Upper Gastrointestinal (GI) Endoscopy
Your health care provider may order an upper GI endoscopy. Using a small camera attached to a long, flexible tube, your physician can examine your upper digestive system to rule out gastroparesis. Since other conditions with similar symptoms to gastroparesis, including peptic ulcer disease and pyloric stenosis, can be treated, an upper endoscopy can be an important step to finding symptom relief.
An ultrasound produces images of your abdominal area. It can help decipher whether the cause of your discomfort is due to gastroparesis or other abdominal conditions, including gallbladder and kidney concerns.
While it’s impossible to “fix” the damage that causes gastroparesis, your doctor can offer treatment to stimulate muscle contractions in your stomach, encouraging it to empty and helping you find relief. Because, after all, a healthy gut impacts your whole health tremendously.
Your treatment plan may include:
- Nutrition/hydration therapy
- Specific treatments for the condition causing your gastroparesis (such as diabetes)
Lifestyle changes can also help your condition, like taking note of your symptoms and what foods or habits improve or worsen them. Little changes can make a big difference in how you feel.
Some people find it helpful to:
- Avoid alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs
- Add physical activity, such as taking a walk after eating
- Eat smaller meals more often
- Eat your fruits and vegetables cooked rather than raw
- Refrain from eating particularly fibrous foods, such as citrus fruits or oatmeal.
A low-fat, low-fiber diet benefits patients with gastroparesis, as foods that are lower in fat and fiber are easier to digest. Swapping out your carbonated beverages with fruit juices, smoothies and water may also be helpful. Keeping a food journal to track how certain foods and drinks make you feel can be a good way to determine what changes might benefit your health. You can also talk with your health care provider for additional support and suggestions for better gut health.
There are two types of gastroparesis medications: those to stimulate the stomach muscles and those to help relieve nausea and vomiting. Your health care provider can offer insight on what options may be particularly helpful for your situation.
Severe cases of gastroparesis sometimes require surgery to allow food to flow more freely into your small bowel. Surgical treatment is typically reserved for individuals who don’t respond to medications or are unable to take them.
Additionally, some patients may require a feeding tube to receive adequate nutrition. This method is typically temporary and relieves your digestive tract while ensuring you get the daily nutrients you need.
The goals of these treatment methods are to:
- Stimulate your stomach muscles and allow your stomach to empty
- Make sure your body has the nutrition and hydration it needs
- Manage symptoms and side effects of the condition
- Manage the cause and prevent it from getting worse
AdventHealth Can Help Treat Gastroparesis
If you have concerning stomach symptoms and need expert care, we’re here to help. Our compassionate and experienced gastroenterology specialists offer comprehensive care and support for your digestive health.