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Gastroparesis: what causes delayed gastric emptying and what can you do?
Gastroparesis is a condition that affects the normal spontaneous movement of the muscles in your stomach. As a result, your digestion is disturbed and you experience symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Although there is no cure for gastroparesis, dietary changes and medications can provide some relief.
It is not always clear what causes gastroparesis, but in some cases it is due to a disturbed communication between the brain and the stomach. This communication takes place via the nervous system, specifically via the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve helps control the complex processes in the digestive tract. For example, it signals that the muscles in the stomach must contract to push the food into the small intestine. If the vagus nerve is damaged, it cannot send normal signals to your stomach muscles. As a result, the food stays longer in the stomach instead of going to the small intestine for digestion.
The vagus nerve and its branches can be damaged by certain conditions or surgeries:
- Abdominal or esophageal surgery
- Infection, usually with a virus
- Scleroderma, a connective tissue disease
- Diseases of the nervous system, such as Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis
- Underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism)
In addition, certain medications can slow stomach emptying, such as sedatives or narcotic pain relievers. A stricture near the gastric outlet or at the beginning of the duodenum can also be the cause of severe difficulty in emptying the stomach. This narrowing can be the result of a stomach ulcer or a benign or malignant tumor.
Many people with gastroparesis have no obvious symptoms. Others may experience certain symptoms that vary in severity and intensity:
- Bloating in the stomach
- Stomach ache
- A feeling of fullness after eating only a few bites
- Vomiting of undigested food you ate a few hours earlier
- Acid reflux
- Changes in blood sugar
- Lack of appetite
- Weight loss and malnutrition
With these tips you can reduce your complaints:
- Avoid fatty foods as much as possible.
- Spread meals throughout the day.
- Eat several small meals a day instead of three large meals.
- Eat slowly and chew your food really well.
- Avoid large amounts of gas-forming products, such as cabbage, peppers, onions, garlic, leeks, nuts and raw vegetables.
- Avoid carbonated soft drinks and beer.
- Try to eat regularly and healthily, even if you are less hungry.
A doctor can give you medicine that stimulates the function of the stomach muscles. If your symptoms remain very severe, tube feeding may be necessary. In very rare cases, a person with gastroparesis needs surgery.
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