Feeling full or uncomfortable after eating is perfectly normal from time to time. But if you’re noticing abdominal pain and bloating are becoming a frequent occurrence after a meal – especially along with other symptoms like nausea, vomiting, acid reflux, regurgitating undigested food and unintentional weight loss – these may be signs of a serious condition known as gastroparesis.
Gastroparesis is a disorder characterized by delayed gastric (stomach) emptying. The muscles that contract to help food move through the stomach and into your small intestine may be significantly slowed or even stop. It can feel as though there’s a traffic jam in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, even though there’s nothing truly blocking your digestion.
What Causes Delayed Gastric Emptying?
The cause of gastroparesis isn’t always clear. It may be due to damage to the vagus nerve, which is the nerve that connects the brain to the GI tract and signals the muscles responsible for stomach emptying and can become impaired due to other underlying conditions.
Other possible causes of delayed gastric emptying include:
- Recent stomach, intestinal or esophageal surgery
- Certain medications, like opioid pain relievers
- Diseases affecting the nervous system, like Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis
- Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
- Scleroderma, a connective tissue disease
Why It Matters
Slow stomach emptying may initially seem like a minor inconvenience, but gastroparesis can cause serious health problems, not to mention take away from your quality of life.
Ongoing nausea, vomiting and poor appetite caused by gastroparesis can lead to health issues, like:
- Nutrient deficiencies and unintentional weight loss
- Dehydration and electrolyte imbalances
- Erratic blood sugar levels
- Stomach ulcers
- Esophagitis (irritation or swelling of the esophagus)
- Bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine
- Bone disease
Delayed gastric emptying can also cause undigested food to harden and sit in your stomach. Though rare, this formation of solid food mass can worsen nausea and vomiting and even become life-threatening by blocking your food’s passage into the small intestine.
How is Gastroparesis Diagnosed and Treated?
If you’re worried about delayed gastric emptying, it’s important to let your healthcare provider know. Your doctor may be able to diagnose gastroparesis based on your medical history and a physical exam. She or he may ask you to provide blood or urine samples, get an ultrasound test to look for a potential blockage causing the delayed stomach emptying or complete an upper GI endoscopy – a test using a camera attached to a flexible tube to get close look at the inside of your esophagus, stomach and upper small intestine.
Treatment for delayed gastric emptying is highly personalized depending on what’s causing it and what solutions make the most sense for you. For some, eating differently, managing blood sugar more effectively or changing up medications may do the trick.
For others with slow stomach emptying, a tube feeding may be recommended to make sure you’re getting all the nutrition you need.
Turning the Corner through Tube Feeding
Tube feeding can be a scary prospect at first. But if you’re struggling to maintain your weight and good health by regular eating alone, it can be a life-saving strategy that can quickly improve your quality of life. Tube feeding not only helps you get the energy, nourishment and hydration your body needs, but also helps relieve gastroparesis symptoms and keep you well – and out of the hospital. If you have diabetes, tube feeding can also help you better manage your blood sugar levels.
If you’re dealing with delayed gastric emptying, choosing the right tube feeding formula can make all the difference. Talk to your doctor or registered dietitian about the right treatment options for you.
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