Gastroparesis 101

Gastroparesis, also known as delayed gastric emptying, is a disorder in which the stomach doesn't function normally, taking too long to empty its contents. Under normal circumstances, strong stomach muscle contractions, which are controlled by the vagus nerve, propel food through the digestive tract. But when the vagus nerve is damaged, the stomach muscles and the intestines don't work properly causing food to move slowly, or not at all through the digestive tract, which can lead to nausea and vomiting.

Some Common Causes

The vagus nerve can be damaged by diseases, including type 1 and type 2 diabetes, but there are other potential causes as well, such as:

  • Abdominal surgery
  • Certain medications that slow the rate of stomach emptying, including narcotic pain medications and antidepressants
  • Some cancer treatments
  • Eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Parkinson's disease

Signs and Symptoms

Make an appointment to see you doctor if you have any of these symptoms that worry you:

  • Heartburn
  • Pain in the upper abdomen
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting undigested food
  • A feeling of fullness after just a few bites of food
  • Weight loss and malnutrition
  • Lack of appetite
  • Gastroesophageal reflux
  • Stomach spasms

Left untreated, gastroparesis can lead to a host of health complications, including worsening diabetes. When food lingers too long in the stomach it can begin to ferment, disrupting the balance of good and bad bacteria, allowing the uncontrollable growth of harmful microorganisms. Undigested food in the stomach can also harden into a solid mass called a bezoar, which not only causes nausea and vomiting, but can also be life-threatening if it prevents food from passing into the small intestine.

Getting Treatment

There is no cure for gastroparesis, but there are treatments available to help control the condition including antiemetic medications (Zofran, Benadryl), which ease nausea and vomiting and drugs like Reglan that can stimulate the stomach muscles to move the food through the digestive tract faster. Surgery, in which the lower part of the stomach is stapled or bypassed to improve stomach emptying, may also provide relief.

Making some dietary changes can also help, including:

  • Eating smaller, more frequent meals
  • Eating low-fiber forms of high-fiber foods, such as well-cooked fruits and vegetables rather than raw fruits and vegetables
  • Avoiding fibrous foods like oranges and broccoli
  • Drinking water throughout your meals

Talk with your doctor to determine which treatments would be best for you.


National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases