August is national Gastroparesis Awareness Month! We encourage medical professionals, patient groups, and family and friends to help educate others about this life-altering chronic illness and its potentially devastating effects on patients and their loved ones.
Gastroparesis, or “paralysis of the stomach,” is a digestive motility disorder in which the stomach muscles fail to contract and move food from the stomach into the intestines at the proper rate. Under normal conditions, the stomach stores food only long enough for it to be ground down into small pieces by contracting stomach muscles in preparation for further digestion in the intestines. This process is slowed in those afflicted with Gastroparesis, resulting in food being “stored” in the stomach for an abnormally long period of time.
This slowing of the stomach emptying process can cause debilitating and sometimes life-threatening symptoms, including stomach/abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, vomiting, heartburn/GERD, and early satiety and can lead to serious complications such as malnourishment, dehydration, extreme weight loss, esophageal damage, blood sugar fluctuations, bezoars, and overwhelming fatigue.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that more than 5 million people live with Gastroparesis. The most common known cause of this condition is Diabetes, which accounts for about one-third of the cases. Other known causes of Gastroparesis include neurologic disorders such as Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s Disease, connective tissue disorders, complications resulting from surgeries, various medications (such as some narcotics and antidepressants), and direct damage to the Vagus nerve. Most cases of Gastroparesis, however, are labeled “idiopathic,” meaning that there is no known cause.
Gastroparesis is most commonly diagnosed by the Gastric Emptying Study (GES), a procedure in which radioactive material (food) is traced by a scanner as it moves through one’s digestive tract. Other methods of diagnosis include upper endoscopy, barium x-rays, gastric manometry, and (less commonly) the smart pill (which, when swallowed, transmits data regarding the rate of passage through the digestive tract).
As of now, there is no safe, reliable, and effective treatment for Gastroparesis – and there is no cure. Available treatment options include often ineffective surgeries such as Gastric Electrical Stimulation (pacemakers) and pyloroplasty; medications which carry the risk of serious side effects such as Reglan (which comes with a “Black Box” warning from the FDA) and Domperidone (which has not been FDA approved); feeding tubes or total parenteral nutrition (TPN); and dietary changes (liquids or soft foods), which often do not provide relief.
Living with Gastroparesis is challenging, both physically and mentally. It is truly a life-altering diagnosis. We seek awareness, better treatments, and, ultimately, a cure.
For additional information, please contact the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) at www.iffgd.org or the Association of Gastrointestinal Motility Disorders (AGMD) at www.agmd-gimotility.org.