Gastroparesis: What You Need to Know

Patient Expert
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August is Gastroparesis Awareness Month. But with a whole month dedicated to this condition, how many of us know anything about it? Gastroparesis is a rare disease that may affect some people with rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders. It can be debilitating, even life-threatening. Knowing more about it will enable you to seek medical help should you develop symptoms, or help others who live with it.

What is gastroparesis?

Gastroparesis is a chronic condition in which the stomach empties too slowly, without evidence of a blockage. Eighty percent of those affected are women, ranging from young to middle-aged.

In most cases, the cause of the condition is unknown, leading to a diagnosis of idiopathic gastroparesis (idiopathic means unknown). However, this condition can also develop as a complication of diseases that are systemic, neurological, or that affect connective tissue.

Symptoms of gastroparesis include nausea, a sense of premature fullness when eating, decreased appetite, vomiting, and stomach discomfort and pain. GERD that is unresponsive to treatment may also be an indication. Symptoms usually occur in connection with eating.

Diagnosing gastroparesis

Diagnosing gastroparesis involves a thorough medical history and physical exam, as well as a number of specialized tests to assess possible causes of delayed gastric emptying. These tests include endoscopy, abdominal ultrasound, blood tests, and barium imaging tests of the gastrointestinal system.

The “gold standard” test for diagnosing gastroparesis is the gastric emptying test (GET). This is a noninvasive test involving eating food that contains small amounts of a radioisotope. Images will then be taken at four intervals over three to six hours. This will enable your doctor to see how your stomach empties. A companion test is the electrogastography, a sort of EKG for the stomach.

Treatment

Treatment may vary depending on the cause of an individual’s gastroparesis. For instance, if it is due to diabetes, controlling that condition is likely to improve the gastroparesis. However, since the cause is not known in approximately a third of those who have the disease, it may be challenging to find effective treatment, especially in more severe cases.

Some of the treatments used for gastroparesis include medication, especially to reduce nausea and vomiting, medications for pain, and drugs that encourage the stomach to empty itself. Other types of therapies may include modification of diet in collaboration with a nutritionist, or surgery. For those who have the condition as a complication of diabetes, well-controlled blood glucose levels can improve quality of life. Very severe cases may require a feeding tube in the small intestine, entirely bypassing the stomach.

As with any other chronic illness, people with gastroparesis develop everyday coping skills. Eating several small meals rather than a few large ones can reduce symptoms. It’s important to stay well-hydrated, and as physically active as possible. Because gastroparesis can lead to vitamin and nutritional deficiency, treatment can also include vitamin supplements, and hydration therapy.

Quality of life

Living with gastroparesis can be challenging. The symptoms can have a significant effect on quality of life and approximately 10 percent of people who have the condition become disabled. If you’ve ever experience opioid -induced constipation where it feels as if your entire gastrointestinal system grinds to a halt, you may be able to imagine what it’s like to live with gastroparesis.

Treatment therapies that reduce the symptoms are an important part of living better with this condition, as is finding a knowledgeable and supportive medical team.

Being part of a community of others who know what it’s like to be you can be an essential part of managing this or any other medical condition. To learn more and connect with others in the gastroparesis community, you may want to explore G-PACT, Gastroparesis Patient Association for Cures and Treatment, and the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders.

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10 Facts About Diabetes and RA

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Lene writes the award-winning blog The Seated View. She’s the author of Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain.