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What is gastroparesis? Things you didn't know about this digestive condition

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Gastroparesis isn't one of the most common health conditions around—about 10 men and 40 women out of 100,000 people have it. But it can be life-altering to anyone who has it. The gastroenterology team at SIU Medicine encourages you to spend a little time learning about gastroparesis, so you can talk to a doctor if you have concerns about this or any digestive health problems.

A brief overview of gastroparesis

The word gastroparesis comes from "gastro," meaning stomach, and "paresis," meaning weakness. Gastroparesis is also called delayed gastric emptying. It happens when a person's stomach muscles don't work properly, or not at all. This makes it take too long for the stomach to empty its contents, leading to delayed digestion and a number of complications and uncomfortable symptoms.

Gastroparesis is usually caused by nerve damage; specifically, damage to the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve normally helps the stomach muscles tighten in order to break food up and help move it into the rest of the digestive tract. When the vagus nerve becomes damaged, the muscles won't contract strongly enough to fully digest the food nor move the food into the small intestines. Without good innervation, stomach muscles can get even weaker over time.

Usually, damage to the vagus nerve happens in people who have diabetes. Diabetes is a condition that makes it hard for a person's body to control their blood sugar levels. Having too much sugar in the blood causes inflammation, which can affect many tissues in the body, including the vagus nerve.

Damage to the vagus nerve that will lead to gastroparesis can also be caused by viral infections, abdominal surgery, medications, a history of radiation for cancer, and certain other underlying health conditions including multiple sclerosis, eating disorders, Parkinson's disease, hypothyroidism, and a connective tissue disorder called scleroderma.

If left untreated, gastroparesis can lead to a number of complications that can dramatically affect a person's quality of life. These complications include:

  • Fermentation of food left in the stomach for too long, which can lead to bacterial overgrowth
  • Hardening of food in the stomach (called bezoars), which can cause blockages and prevent even more food from passing to the rest of the digestive tract
  • Dehydration
  • Poor blood sugar control
  • Poor nutritional status (since food cannot be properly passed through the intestines where nutrients normally get absorbed)

Do you have gastroparesis? Common signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms of gastroparesis include:

  • Heartburn, also known as gastroesophageal reflux or GERD (this happens when stomach contents back up into the esophagus)
  • Vomiting, especially of undigested food
  • Nausea
  • Feeling full very quickly while eating
  • Bloating
  • Uncontrolled blood sugar
  • Weight loss
  • Decreased appetite

Many health conditions can lead to similar symptoms. You can't know for sure if you have gastroparesis unless you consult with a doctor, such as a gastroenterologist. Your doctor may order blood tests, imaging studies and other diagnostic tools to help rule out other conditions and confirm a diagnosis.

How our SIU Medicine team treats gastroparesis

Physicians and researchers are still learning about gastroparesis. At SIU Medicine, we have access to the most recent studies on digestive health issues and strive to ensure timely diagnosis and treatment for people with this condition.

Common treatments for gastroparesis include medications, surgery and certain lifestyle changes, including dietary modifications. If you have gastroparesis as well as other underlying health conditions like diabetes or an eating disorder, it's also important to make sure those health conditions are well-managed, too.

Is gastroparesis slowing you down?

SIU Medicine brings evidence-based treatment together with holistic person-first healthcare in order to provide our patients with optimal treatment and outcomes. If you have gastroparesis or are unsure about what's causing your digestive health issues, contact SIU Medicine now at 217-545-8000 to schedule an appointment with a provider.

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