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Gastroparesis

Gastroparesis is a condition in which the spontaneous movement of the muscles (motility) in your stomach does not function normally.

Ordinarily, strong muscular contractions propel food through your digestive tract. But in gastroparesis, your stomach's motility works poorly or not at all. This prevents your stomach from emptying properly. Gastroparesis can interfere with normal digestion, cause nausea and vomiting, and cause problems with blood sugar levels and nutrition.

The cause of gastroparesis is usually unknown. When this is the case, it's called idiopathic gastroparesis (IG). When people who have diabetes develop gastroparesis, it's called diabetic gastroparesis (DG). Some people develop gastroparesis after surgery.

There is no cure for gastroparesis, but changes to your diet, along with medication, can offer some relief.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications

Signs and symptoms of gastroparesis include:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • A feeling of fullness after eating just a few bites
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Abdominal pain
  • Changes in blood sugar levels
  • Lack of appetite
  • Weight loss and malnutrition

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you.

It's not always clear what leads to gastroparesis. But in many cases, gastroparesis is believed to be caused by damage to a nerve that controls the stomach muscles (vagus nerve).

The vagus nerve helps manage the complex processes in your digestive tract, including signaling the muscles in your stomach to contract and push food into the small intestine. A damaged vagus nerve can't send signals normally to your stomach muscles. This may cause food to remain in your stomach longer, rather than move normally into your small intestine to be digested.

The vagus nerve can be damaged by diseases, such as diabetes, or by surgery to the stomach or small intestine.

Factors that can make it difficult for your stomach to empty properly include:

  • Diabetes
  • Abdominal or esophageal surgery
  • Infection, usually a virus
  • Certain medications that slow the rate of stomach emptying, such as narcotic pain medications
  • Certain cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy
  • Scleroderma (a connective tissue disease)
  • Nervous system diseases, such as Parkinson's or multiple sclerosis
  • Hypothyroidism (low thyroid)

Young and middle-aged women are most likely to develop idiopathic gastroparesis.

Gastroparesis can cause several complications, such as:

  • Severe dehydration. Ongoing vomiting can cause dehydration.
  • Malnutrition. Poor appetite can mean you don't take in enough calories, or you may be unable absorb enough nutrients due to vomiting.
  • Undigested food that hardens and remains in your stomach. Undigested food in your stomach can harden into a solid mass called a bezoar. Bezoars can cause nausea and vomiting and may be life-threatening if they prevent food from passing into your small intestine.
  • Blood sugar fluctuations. Although gastroparesis doesn't cause diabetes, inconsistent passage of food into the small bowel can cause erratic changes in blood sugar levels, which make diabetes worse. In turn, poor control of blood sugar levels makes gastroparesis worse.
  • Decreased quality of life. Acute flare-up of symptoms can make it difficult to work.
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