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Gastroparesis, Often Undiagnosed, Can Cause Crippling Results

Rachel Morrell

Gastroparesis Awareness Ribbon held in hands

If you experience bloating, pain, reduced appetite and a constant feeling of fullness after eating, you may have a digestive motility condition. August is Gastroparesis Awareness Month and Digestive Tract Paralysis Month, so let’s learn about the characteristics of this stomach motility disorder.

What is Digestive Tract Paralysis?

Digestive tract paralysis is an inclusive term for disorders characterized by slow, delayed or incomplete movement of the gastrointestinal system. There are three main types of digestive tract paralysis: gastroparesis, colonic inertia and chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction. Colonic inertia and chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction are quite rare, but gastroparesis is estimated to affect one in every 25 Americans.

What is Gastroparesis?

Gastroparesis is a condition caused by slow stomach emptying. Ordinarily, partially digested food (chyme) is propelled through the digestive tract through rhythmic gastric contractions. This involuntary motion is known as peristalsis, and it moves stomach contents into the small intestines where nutrients can be absorbed and used by the body.

If these essential contractions are slow, erratic or absent, food material remains in the stomach. This can cause a feeling of fullness long after a meal. Because the chyme does not continue to move through the digestive tract, it begins to ferment and can cause gas, bloating, cramping, nausea and vomiting.

If gastroparesis goes undetected, the body will become malnourished due to vitamin, mineral and nutrient deficiencies. As a result, patients with gastroparesis may experience weight loss, lethargy and exhaustion.

Common Causes of Gastroparesis

Although there are several events and conditions that can interrupt normal digestion, often, physicians cannot pinpoint a single cause of gastroparesis. Some people develop gastroparesis after a surgical procedure. The vagus nerve is the main nerve that communicates with the digestive tract to stimulate gastric secretions and involuntary stomach contractions. If the vagus nerve is injured or damaged during surgery, it can’t send signals to the stomach, gallbladder or intestines.

While it may be difficult to find the cause of gastroparesis, there are particular risk factors that increase the chances of developing the condition. These include:

  • Abdominal or esophageal surgery
  • Diabetes
  • Narcotic or opioid use
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)

Effects of Gastroparesis

Chronically delayed stomach emptying creates dramatic shifts in blood sugar levels and can cause dizziness, fatigue and nausea. Repeated vomiting due to gastroparesis can cause dehydration, esophageal damage and tooth decay. In severe cases, undigested food can accumulate and solidify into a mass called a bezoar that can obstruct the digestive tract.

If you have GI symptoms that you suspect may be due to gastroparesis, make an appointment with a board-certified gastroenterologist for evaluation and testing. Gastroparesis is a serious condition that requires immediate medical intervention. Even if it turns out that you do not have gastroparesis, a GI specialist can help you find relief from your symptoms.

How to Get Involved

Now that you know more about gastroparesis, you can be aware of the severe health risks that a stomach motility disorder can cause. Many people have never heard of gastroparesis, so you can start a conversation and encourage others to spread the word.

Another way to recognize Gastroparesis Awareness Month is through social media. Visit the International Foundation for Functional Digestive Disorders website and share it on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. With just one click, you can tell those you love about gastroparesis prevention and management.

Or, find out if your local hospital or digestive care center has an educational program about gastroparesis. If there’s a digestive health event in your area, take a friend or family member along with you to learn more.

Your digestive health is an essential component of your overall wellness, but only you can make it a priority. If you have questions or concerns, call a gastroenterologist. Remember, the American Cancer Society suggests that all adults over 45 should be getting routine colonoscopies to prevent colon cancer. Even if you feel healthy, you still need to schedule a screening.

Click here to get a list of board-certified gastroenterologists in your community. Our physicians are ready to partner with you to maintain your digestive health.

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