Symptoms and causes

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of gastroparesis include:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • A feeling of fullness after eating just a few bites
  • Vomiting undigested food eaten a few hours earlier
  • Acid reflux
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Abdominal pain
  • Changes in blood sugar levels
  • Lack of appetite
  • Weight loss and malnutrition

Many people with gastroparesis don't have any noticeable signs and symptoms.

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you.

Causes

It's not always clear what leads to gastroparesis. But in many cases, gastroparesis is believed to be caused by damage to a nerve that controls the stomach muscles (vagus nerve).

The vagus nerve helps manage the complex processes in your digestive tract, including signaling the muscles in your stomach to contract and push food into the small intestine. A damaged vagus nerve can't send signals normally to your stomach muscles. This may cause food to remain in your stomach longer, rather than move normally into your small intestine to be digested.

The vagus nerve can be damaged by diseases, such as diabetes, or by surgery to the stomach or small intestine.

Risk factors

Factors that can increase your risk of gastroparesis:

  • Diabetes
  • Abdominal or esophageal surgery
  • Infection, usually a virus
  • Certain medications that slow the rate of stomach emptying, such as narcotic pain medications
  • Scleroderma (a connective tissue disease)
  • Nervous system diseases, such as Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis
  • Hypothyroidism (low thyroid)

Women are more likely to develop gastroparesis than are men.

Complications

Gastroparesis can cause several complications, such as:

  • Severe dehydration. Ongoing vomiting can cause dehydration.
  • Malnutrition. Poor appetite can mean you don't take in enough calories, or you may be unable to absorb enough nutrients due to vomiting.
  • Undigested food that hardens and remains in your stomach. Undigested food in your stomach can harden into a solid mass called a bezoar. Bezoars can cause nausea and vomiting and may be life-threatening if they prevent food from passing into your small intestine.
  • Unpredictable blood sugar changes. Although gastroparesis doesn't cause diabetes, frequent changes in the rate and amount of food passing into the small bowel can cause erratic changes in blood sugar levels. These variations in blood sugar make diabetes worse. In turn, poor control of blood sugar levels makes gastroparesis worse.
  • Decreased quality of life. An acute flare-up of symptoms can make it difficult to work and keep up with other responsibilities.