Gastroparesis: Know the Risk Factors for This Mysterious Stomach Condition


As diabetes cases skyrocket, another condition called gastroparesis is rapidly becoming a more common diagnosis. It reduces the ability of the stomach to empty its contents but does not involve a blockage. Nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, bloating and chronic abdominal pain are the hallmark symptoms, according to gastroenterologist Michael Cline, DO.

If you have diabetes, gastroparesis can cause it to be poorly controlled. Severe gastroparesis makes it difficult to manage your blood sugar.

Primary care physicians — and even gastroenterologists — frequently overlook and under-diagnose the condition, he says. Sometimes it is initially misdiagnosed as an ulcer, heartburn or an allergic reaction.

In non-diabetic patients, the condition may relate to acid reflux.

“In current data, up to 40 percent of people with acid reflux have some sort of delay in gastric emptying,” he says. “So that’s a fairly large number, when you look at the millions of Americans who have acid reflux,” Dr. Cline says.

Stomach motility either abnormal or absent

Gastroparesis, which means partial paralysis of the stomach, is a serious disease that prevents your stomach from digesting food and emptying properly. Damaged nerves and muscles don’t function with their normal strength and coordination. That slows the movement of contents through your digestive system.

Doctors don’t yet know how to reverse the damage, but there is a range of treatment options. And, early diagnosis helps, Dr. Cline says.

A look at what causes gastroparesis

The primary cause of gastroparesis is damage to or dysfunction of peripheral nerves and muscles.

In diabetic patients, Dr. Cline says, it appears as more of a neuropathy-based disease associated with damaged nerves. In patients who don’t have diabetes, it seems more muscular-based: The nerve endings are all right, but the muscles are not responding, he says.

In addition to diabetes, other sources of gastroparesis include:

A difficult disease to treat

Treatment sometimes begins with adjustments to diet and medication. If those approaches don’t work, surgical treatments are the next steps:

Treating psychological concerns

A neuropsychiatric specialist is sometimes called in to address mental health concerns that can accompany this chronic disease.

“If you wake up sick every day and vomiting all the time, this disease can quickly move from a purely physical one to a psychiatric one, so we treat the possible components of depression, anxiety, pain and so on, too,” Dr. Cline says.