Stomach emptying affected by cranial nerve activity
During digestion the vagus nerve, a long nerve that extends from the brain down to the abdomen, stimulates the muscles of the stomach to contract. These contractions help move food through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. If the vagus nerve gets damaged, the movement may stop, preventing food from emptying from the stomach to the small intestine. The resulting condition is gastroparesis, or delayed gastric emptying.
Gastroparesis is mostly commonly found in people with diabetes, in which case it is called diabetic gastroparesis (DG). This is because high blood glucose (sugar) can do damage to the vagus nerve. However, the nerve may also get damaged as a result of:
- Certain medications, such as antidepressants
- Intestinal surgery
- Nervous system diseases, such as Parkinson’s or MS
In many cases, the cause of gastroparesis is unknown, in which case it is called idiopathic gastroparesis (IG).
Symptoms, risks and diagnosis of gastroparesis
Because the stomach fails to empty when you have gastroparesis, you may develop certain symptoms, such as:
- Vomiting of undigested food
- Problems with nutrient absorption
The condition can be aggravated by eating greasy foods, carbonated drinks, or an excess of high-fiber foods.
When food remains in the stomach for too long, it can worsen glucose in a person with diabetes. It can also lead to bacterial growth and the formation of bezoars, which are indigestible masses of food that can lead to blockages and infection.
If you are having digestive issues and symptoms that concern you, be sure to talk with your doctor. Your doctor will review your medical history and perform a physical exam. He or she may also prescribe testing, such as:
- Upper GI endoscopy
- Gastric emptying scintigraphy (test that takes pictures of food as it digests)
- SmartPill (wireless, ingestible “pill” that transmits information about digestion)
- Gastric emptying breath test (measures how quickly stomach empties)
If you are diagnosed with gastroparesis, treatment may include dietary changes, such as eating smaller meals more frequently and avoiding trigger foods and drinks. Walking around after eating may also help. In some cases, a liquid diet may be recommended.
Other treatment approaches include medication, Botox, gastric electrical stimulation (to decrease symptoms of nausea and vomiting), jejunostomy (feeding tube through abdomen), and parenteral nutrition (IV feeding), if medication and other treatments have not worked for you.