If you have unexplained stomach problems, such as nausea, bloating, constipation, chronic abdominal pain or vomiting, you might swallow a pill — but not the medicated kind.
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Instead, consider a “smart” pill, which gathers data as it moves through your GI tract. This painless tool helps your doctor pinpoint the cause of your problem so you can get the best treatment, says gastroenterologist Michael Cline, DO.
How can the pill help?
Data gathered by such a pill could help your doctor diagnose a condition called gastroparesis, which causes food to move abnormally slowly from your stomach to the small intestine, while ruling out another GI condition, such as chronic constipation.
Gastroparesis, which means partial paralysis of the stomach, is a common condition for those with diabetes. The condition reduces your stomach’s ability to empty its contents, but it does not involve a blockage.
“Basically, gastroparesis is a stomach that doesn’t empty well,” says Dr. Cline.
And it’s a difficult disease to treat, he says. Treatment typically begins with adjustments to diet and medication. If those approaches don’t work, surgical treatments are the next steps.
How does the pill work?
The SmartPill® provides a simple, painless way to collect data about your GI tract without using radiation, Dr. Cline says. It’s an FDA-approved, disposable capsule that you swallow.
“It’s called ‘smart’ because it measures the acid level, the pressure level, the temperature and time of your GI tract,” he explains. “It’s similar to the pill cam, which takes pictures inside your body. This is its sister, essentially.”
Instead of taking photos of the inside of your body, the SmartPill measures motility and movement of your gut. It wirelessly transmits data about your GI tract to a recorder that you wear on a belt clip or lanyard around your neck as you go about your daily activities.
“The recorder captures the data and we download it into a computer and print out what’s happening, from start to finish,” Dr. Cline says. “We can get all of this data and measurements of motility and movement without any wires attached and without X-rays.”
Depending on how slowly your intestines move, the SmartPill typically works its way through your system in three to five days. If you have normal motility, it is in your stomach for less than four hours, in your small intestine for less than six hours and in your large intestine or colon for less than 59 hours.
Ruling out other GI issues
The SmartPill can also help a physician rule out other gastric issues that can cause problems in your small intestine or colon.
“You want to make sure that you’re dealing with just gastroparesis and not another issue,” says Dr. Cline.
The one real benefit of the SmartPill over everything else available is that it measures all three sections of your intestine with one test. Dr. Cline says that not only are you looking for gastroparesis, but you’re also looking at your small intestine movement and colon movement.
“There’s no other test out there that can measure all three with one test,” he says. “I tell patients you get a lot more bang for your buck with the SmartPill.”
Is a ‘smart’ pill right for you?
The SmartPill does not work for people with certain conditions, Dr. Cline says. These conditions include:
- A history of strictures in your intestines, such as scarring (which can narrow the bowel passage)
- Inflammatory bowel disease, like Crohn’s disease
- A heart pacemaker (or pacemakers in other organs)
“The main risk of the SmartPill is it could get stuck,” he explains. “If you have normal intestines, the SmartPill will not stick. If the pill gets stuck, you have a problem, obviously. You don’t want to give a patient who is at a high risk of having narrowing bowels the SmartPill.”
The FDA advises against giving the SmartPill to patients who have pacemakers.
Dr. Cline says he also advises patients who need an MRI to delay taking the SmartPill.
“The final contraindication, which is pretty rare, is if the patient has an MRI scheduled,” he says. “You obviously don’t want to do it until after the MRI is over. You can’t go through an MRI with that pill inside of you.”