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Understanding Gastroparesis

Gastroparesis is a stomach disorder that can affect people with diabetes. It occurs when nerve damage keeps the stomach from emptying normally, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). If you have gastroparesis, managing your diabetes can help keep you as healthy and comfortable as possible. And when you need more help controlling your symptoms, other types of treatment for gastroparesis are available.

Nerve damage

The movement of food through the digestive tract is controlled by the vagus nerve. When this nerve is damaged by diabetes, the stomach takes too long to empty. This may cause:

  • Heartburn

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Feeling full after eating a small amount of food

  • Weight loss

  • Abdominal bloating

  • Lack of appetite

As part of the digestive process, food enters the small intestine when it leaves the stomach. There, the food is absorbed, making blood glucose levels rise. Gastroparesis causes this process to be delayed, the NIDDK says. As a result, people with this condition have a hard time predicting and controlling blood glucose levels after eating. Gastroparesis may also cause poor absorption of food, which can lead to malnutrition. In addition, if food stays in the stomach too long, it can harden into solid masses called bezoars. These masses can be dangerous if they block the outlet to the small intestine.

Tests for diagnosis

Gastroparesis can be diagnosed through various medical tests. You might be asked to consume a special food that shows up on an X-ray or other imaging test. This lets your health care provider see how long it takes for food to leave your stomach. Or, you might be given a gastric manometry test. This test measures electrical and muscular activity in the stomach as it digests food.

Treatment

Once the diagnosis is confirmed, the main goal is to keep blood glucose levels under control, the NIDDK says. Beyond that, medications may be prescribed. Some medications cause muscle contractions in the stomach that help move food along. Others help control nausea and vomiting. If a bezoar forms, your health care provider may use an endoscope to inject medication that dissolves the bezoar.

Many people with diabetes find that it helps to eat 6 small meals a day instead of 3 large ones. At times, your health care provider might suggest liquid meals, which pass through the stomach more easily than solid foods. If all else fails, a feeding tube can be surgically inserted through the abdomen into the small intestine, bypassing the stomach. This type of tube is often temporary.

Gastroparesis can range from mild to severe. But even in severe cases, help is available.