Gastroparesis, commonly known as delayed gastric emptying, is a condition in which the stomach does not empty completely. In the absence of any obvious obstruction or blockage, gastroparesis is defined by the presence of specific long-term symptoms as well as delayed stomach emptying.
On the occasion of Gastroparesis Awareness Month, which is observed in August, we turned to Hayley McCorkle, Program Manager at the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD). The organization seeks to bring vital health messages about gastroparesis diagnosis, treatment, and quality of life issues to the public’s notice. Improved understanding of gastroparesis will aid patients and families in managing the illness, as well as the promotion of preventive initiatives.
What are the symptoms of gastroparesis?
Gastroparesis is a condition of slowed stomach emptying with no intestinal blockage that can vary from life-limiting to life-threatening. Healthcare providers often refer to it as delayed gastric emptying. This is a motility disorder where the stomach does not empty food as quickly as it should. Symptoms usually occur during or after a meal and can appear suddenly or gradually.
Symptoms of gastroparesis typically include:
- nausea and/or vomiting,
- stomach pain and discomfort,
- dry heaves,
- stomach fullness after a normal-sized meal,
- early fullness and the inability to finish a meal.
Additional symptoms, such as bloating, stomach discomfort or pain, loss of appetite, and heartburn, among others, may occur. Left unmanaged, gastroparesis can lead to additional complications, including severe dehydration, obstruction, poor insulin control in individuals with underlying diabetes, and malnutrition due to poor absorption of nutrients.
“Gastroparesis is a motility disorder where the stomach does not empty food as quickly as it should.”
Why is gastroparesis commonly misunderstood and often misdiagnosed?
We may not know why gastroparesis is commonly misunderstood, but we do know that the symptoms are very similar to other illnesses, which can make it difficult for a provider to make an accurate diagnosis. Despite many researchers who have joined forces to learn more about this gastrointestinal condition and the burden posed on those affected, little remains known, and many face diagnostic delays. Those who live with gastroparesis suffer an average of five years before receiving the necessary answers and care. Patients may experience multiple misdiagnoses during this time, undergoing numerous hospitalizations and diagnostic tests. Researchers around the world are still investigating and searching for answers. So, those living with gastroparesis are not alone, and we are hopeful that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“The symptoms are very similar to other illnesses, which can make it difficult for a provider to make an accurate diagnosis.”
How is gastroparesis treated?
The treatment of gastroparesis in an individual often depends on the severity of symptoms. Treatment options typically aim to manage symptoms over a long period.
Treatment options for those living with gastroparesis may include:
- dietary and lifestyle measures,
- medications, and/or
- procedures that may include surgery, such as
- enteral nutrition,
- parenteral nutrition,
- gastric electrical stimulation (Enterra), or
- other surgical procedures.
No single treatment helps all persons with gastroparesis. It is important to speak with a healthcare provider to determine the best treatment option for you.
“No single treatment helps all persons with gastroparesis.”
How does gastroparesis impact the lifestyle and quality of life of those affected as well as of their families and friends?
Gastroparesis is a long-term condition that can impair quality of life and well-being. Living with gastroparesis affects those who suffer and many others, especially family members and friends. It also touches on relationships in the classroom, workplace, or social interactions. It takes skills and strengths to deal with a challenging digestive condition like gastroparesis. It means being a kind of active researcher, always looking for what does and does not help, hurt, and work best. It is important for patients and their caregivers to understand the condition and to advocate for better health. If you or a friend or loved one has gastroparesis, it is also important to understand that you are not alone with this diagnosis.
“It is important for patients and their caregivers to understand the condition and to advocate for better health.”
What is the advice of patients living with gastroparesis regarding self-care, prevention and risk management?
Although the cause of gastroparesis is commonly unknown (idiopathic), in about 1 in 4 people, it can occur as a complication of long-standing diabetes. With that said, many things can affect the health of individuals. Some things are out of their control, and some they can control. Outside of making healthy lifestyle modifications, living with gastroparesis will push individuals to look for what works best for them at different periods of their life. Developing the best treatment or management plan with a healthcare provider can help improve their health-related quality of life. When a person with gastroparesis takes preventive steps it can help ease symptoms, lessen the unwanted effects on daily life and enhance the well-being for patients.
Some preventive steps may include:
- working with a gastrointestinal specialist who is familiar with gastroparesis,
- developing a multidisciplinary healthcare team that includes a registered dietitian to assist with meal planning,
- eating frequent small meals,
- staying hydrated,
- assessing the risk and benefit of all treatment plans with your healthcare provider etc.
It is important to seek appropriate care and take an active role in your health. Working along with your healthcare team will help control, reduce, or prevent symptoms and complications.
“Living with gastroparesis will push individuals to look for what works best for them at different periods of their life.”
What are your plans for this year’s awareness month?
In recognition of Gastroparesis Awareness Month, IFFGD will launch a campaign to acknowledge the challenges of living with gastroparesis — symptom burdens, finding the right treatment options, and lifestyle modifications — using the hashtag #LivingWithGP on all social media channels. During Gastroparesis Awareness Month, we invite you to share your gastroparesis story and make your voice heard using the hashtag #LivingWithGP. IFFGD’s Gastroparesis Awareness Month materials include a media toolkit with statistics and key messaging to post on social media, one campaign poster, one website banner, and social media images. Please contact IFFGD if you are interested in receiving the 2022 gastroparesis awareness campaign material.
Many thanks for your time and for the interview.