Gastroparesis—sometimes also called gastric stasis—is a condition that occurs when your stomach takes longer than usual to empty its contents, eventually leading to problems with your digestion. The condition can cause several symptoms, including feeling sick to your stomach, vomiting, abdominal pain, bloating, and feeling full after eating a small meal.
The reason gastroparesis occurs is not always clear. However, it could stem from a physical blockage in your digestive system. Oftentimes, gastroparesis can be a common complication of diabetes and can also develop after having certain surgical procedures. Researchers estimate that nearly 2% of the U.S. population has gastroparesis. That’s why knowing the symptoms and understanding when to seek medical care can be an important step in better managing the condition.
Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea is one of the most common symptoms of gastroparesis. You might feel nauseous because your stomach takes longer to empty out solid food, which can lead to persistent feelings of discomfort or queasiness. While vomiting doesn’t always accompany nausea, you may feel the urge to throw up.
However, some people with gastroparesis can experience episodes of frequent vomiting, which often occur several hours after eating. Because the condition causes delays in how quickly your digestive system is able to process food, your food can linger in your stomach or regurgitate up your throat. It’s important to note that recurrent vomiting can lead to dehydration and malnutrition, especially if this symptom is left untreated.
Your healthcare provider may prescribe antiemetics to help with nausea and vomiting. Antiemetics are medications that help relieve nausea and vomiting. There are different types available, both as prescription and over-the-counter options. Your provider can help you choose the medication that is right for you. Keep in mind: while antiemetics can reduce nausea and vomiting symptoms, they cannot improve the condition itself.
Abdominal Pain and Bloating
Those with gastroparesis may often experience abdominal (stomach) pain or discomfort. The pain can look different from person to person. Some people can have mild, such aches while others feel a strong cramping sensation.
When your digestive system has a delay in how fast it’s able to empty the stomach, you can sometimes experience a build-up of gas. This may cause you to feel bloated, which often resembles a feeling of fullness in the upper abdomen.
To alleviate stomach pains, your healthcare provider may prescribe a non-narcotic pain medication. But it’s important to note that sometimes non-narcotic medications have the potential to slow down gastric emptying and exacerbate gastroparesis symptoms.
With gastroparesis, it’s common to become fully very quickly. You might feel bloated or full shortly after starting a meal, even if you only consumed a small amount of food. This early satiety (fullness) can affect your ability to get the nutrients that your body needs from the foods you eat. Having a poor appetite can potentially lead to unintended weight loss and malnutrition.
Appetite Changes and Unintentional Weight Loss
Because you can feel full, in pain, or bloated shortly after eating a meal, gastroparesis can change how often you eat. You might notice that you have a lower desire to eat meals, consume smaller portions, or want to avoid eating food altogether. This often results in an inadequate caloric intake (or, not eating enough calories that your body needs), which can lead to unintentional weight loss.
Research suggests that there is a connection between gastroparesis and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The delayed emptying of the stomach, which is a characteristic of gastroparesis, can cause food to linger in the stomach for an extended period of time. The longer food stays in your stomach, the higher your risk of developing acid reflux—a hallmark symptom of GERD. Acid reflux can cause heartburn, a burning sensation in your chest, or burping.
GERD is a severe and chronic (long-term) form of acid reflux. While it can be common to have some episodes of heartburn here and there, persistent feelings of heartburn may increase your risk of developing GERD. Specifically, this condition can occur when your stomach contents leak back into the esophagus and irritate it, causing a burning sensation in the chest area.
Fluctuating Blood Sugar Levels
If your gastroparesis is a complication of an underlying diabetes diagnosis, this condition can make it difficult for you to manage your blood sugar levels. When your stomach takes longer to empty its contents, your digestive system might absorb nutrients and sugars in unpredictable ways. As a result, your blood sugar levels may spike or drop unexpectedly.
Sporadic changes in blood sugar levels can make it really challenging to manage diabetes properly. This can often happen because gastroparesis affects how your body absorbs food, making it difficult to match the food you eat with the right amount of insulin you need.
If you receive a diagnosis for both diabetes and gastroparesis, talk with your healthcare provider about how to best manage both conditions to keep symptoms at bay and improve your overall quality of life.
Malnutrition and Nutritional Deficiencies
Prolonged gastroparesis can block your body’s ability to absorb essential nutrients, potentially leading to malnutrition and deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, and other important components of a balanced diet.You might recognize malnutrition if you experience symptoms such as a reduced appetite, feeling weak, fatigued or dizzy, and not being able to focus.
Symptoms in Children
Although gastroparesis is common in adults, it is not very common in children. If your child does develop gastroparesis, it is often due to a viral infection. Children can experience many of the same symptoms of gastroparesis that adults do.
Vomiting is the most common symptom associated with gastroparesis in children. Children who have pediatric gastroparesis tend to experience nausea later in the day after eating a meal and frequently vomit foods they consumed several hours prior.
Additional symptoms in children may include:
- Upper abdominal discomfort or pain
- Fullness after eating
It is important to remember that children may not be able to communicate their symptoms effectively and the symptoms they experience can vary. Parents and caregivers should monitor their children closely for any changes in eating habits, weight, growth, and overall well-being.
Consulting with your child’s pediatrician or working with a specialist in pediatric gastroenterology is crucial for an accurate diagnosis, management, and appropriate treatment options tailored to your child’s specific needs.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
Knowing when to seek care from a healthcare provider is essential—as this can help you get a diagnosis early and start treatment sooner. If you experience any of the following symptoms, it’s important to make an appointment with your provider as soo as possible:
- Intense abdominal pain or cramps
- Blood sugar levels that are too high or too low
- Frequent vomiting or vomiting for more than an hour
- Extreme weakness or fainting
- Difficulty breathing
- Presence of fever
If you notice any symptoms of dehydration, it is advisable to seek medical attention. Signs of dehydration may include:
- Excessive thirst and dry mouth
- Urinating (peeing) less
- Dark-colored urine
- Sunken eyes or cheeks
- Feeling lightheaded or fainting
- Likewise, see your provider if you observe any signs or symptoms of malnutrition, which may include:
- Persistent fatigue or weakness
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Unusually pale skin color
HEALTH – Medically reviewed by Soma Mandal, MD