• Medical Author:
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

  • Medical Editor: Bhupinder Anand, MD

How is gastroparesis treated?

Treatment of gastroparesis includes diet, medication, and devices or procedures that facilitate emptying of the stomach. The goals of treatment include:

  1. To provide a diet containing foods that are more easily emptied from the stomach.
  2. Controlling underlying conditions that may be aggravating gastroparesis.
  3. Relieve symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.
  4. Stimulate muscle activity in the stomach so that food is properly ground and emptied from the stomach
  5. Maintaining adequate nutrition.


Emptying from the stomach is faster when there is less food to empty, so smaller, more frequent portions of food are recommended. Soft foods (or preferably liquid) that do not require grinding also are emptied more easily. Moreover, in gastroparesis, the emptying of liquids often is less severely affected than the emptying of solids. Fat causes the release of hormones that slow down the emptying of the stomach. Therefore, foods low in fat empty faster from the stomach. In patients with severe gastroparesis, sometimes only liquid meals are tolerated. It also is recommended that the diet be low in fiber (for example, vegetables) due to the concern about the formation of bezoars, and the fact that fiber slows gastric emptying - at least in normal individuals.

Food should be chewed well since the grinding action of the stomach is reduced. Meals should be taken with enough liquids to ensure maximal liquidity of contents in the stomach since liquids usually empty better than solid food; however, if liquid emptying also is slow, too much liquid might create problems. (Only trial and error will determine the effects of increased liquids.) Patients with gastroparesis should have most food early in the day, especially the solid food; they should not lie down for 4-5 hours after their last meal, since when lying, the assistance of gravity on gastric emptying is lost. Multivitamins should be taken because of the likelihood of malnutrition and vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Controlling underlying conditions

High levels of glucose (sugar) in blood tends to slow gastric emptying. Therefore it is important to lower blood glucose levels in patients with diabetes to near normal levels with diets and medications. Individuals with a deficiency of thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) should be treated with thyroid hormone. If bezoars are present, they should be removed (usually endoscopically).

Relieving nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain

Drugs used to relieve nausea and vomiting in gastroparesis include promotility drugs (see discussion that follows) such as metoclopramide (Reglan) and domperidone, anti-nausea medications such as prochlorperazine (Compazine) and promethazine (Phenergan), serotonin antagonists such as ondansetron (Zofran), anticholinergic drugs such as a scopolamine patch (commonly used for treating motion sickness), drugs used for treating nausea in cancer chemotherapy patients such as aprepitant (Emend), and medical marijuana (Marinol).

Drugs used to relieve abdominal pain in gastroparesis include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve), low dose tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline (Elavil, Endep), drugs that block nerves that sense pain such as gabapentin (Neurontin), and narcotics such as tramadol (Ultram) and fentanyl (Duragesic). (Nevertheless, narcotics as a group tend to cause constipation and slow emptying of the stomach, and, therefore, should be avoided or used with caution in patients with gastroparesis.

Stimulating muscle activity

Oral Drugs: There are four oral drugs that are used to stimulate contractions of the stomach's muscles, referred to as pro-motility drugs. These drugs are 1) cisapride (Propulsid), 2) domperidone, 3) metoclopramide (Reglan), and 4) erythromycin.

1. Cisapride (Propulsid) is an effective drug for treating gastroparesis; however, it was removed from the market because it can cause serious and life-threatening irregular heart rhythms. Despite this fact, it can be obtained for use through the pharmaceutical company that manufactures it (Janssen Pharmaceuticals) under a strictly monitored protocol but only for patients with severe gastroparesis unresponsive to all other measures.

2. Domperidone has not been released for use in the US; however, it too can be obtained if approval is obtained for its use from the US Food and Drug Administration.

3. Metoclopramide (Reglan) is available without restriction and is effective at promoting muscular activity in the stomach; however, there are side effects of metoclopramide that can limit its use.

4. Erythromycin (E-Mycin, Ilosone, etc.), is a commonly-used antibiotic. At doses lower than those used to treat infections, erythromycin stimulates contractions of the muscles of the stomach and small intestine and is useful for treating gastroparesis.

It has been demonstrated that tegaserod (Zelnorm), an oral drug used for treating constipation in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), increases emptying from the stomach just as it does from the colon. However, in March of 2007, the FDA asked Novartis to suspend sales of tegaserod (Zelnorm) in the United States because a retrospective analysis of data by Novartis from more than 18,000 patients showed a slight difference in the incidence of cardiovascular events (heart attacks, strokes, and angina) among patients on Zelnorm compared to placebo. The data showed that cardiovascular events occurred in 13 out of 11,614 patients treated with Zelnorm (0.1%), compared to one cardiovascular event in 7,031 (0.01%) placebo-treated patients. However, it is unclear whether Zelnorm actually causes heart attacks and strokes. Doctors and scientists will be scrutinizing the data to determine the long term safety of Zelnorm.

Further studies will be necessary to determine just how effective tegaserod is and how it compares to the other medications that are available for treating gastroparesis before its use can be recommended.

There are two important guidelines in prescribing oral drugs for gastroparesis. First, the drugs must be given at the right times, and second, the drugs must reach the small intestine so that they can be absorbed into the body. Since the goal of treatment is to stimulate muscular contractions during and immediately after a meal, drugs that stimulate contractions should be given before meals.

Most drugs must be emptied from the stomach so that they can be absorbed in the small intestine. The majority of patients with gastroparesis have delayed emptying of solid food as well as pills and capsules. As mentioned previously, many patients with gastroparesis have less of a problem emptying liquids as compared with solid food. Therefore, liquid medications usually are more effective than pills or capsules.

Intravenous drugs: Occasionally, patients have such poor emptying of both liquid and solid food from the stomach that only drugs given intravenously are effective. In such patients, intravenous metoclopramide or erythromycin can be used. A third option is octreotide (Sandostatin), a hormone-like drug that can be injected beneath the skin. Like erythromycin, octreotide stimulates short bursts of strong contractions of the muscles in the stomach and small intestine. Due to its greater expense and the need for injection, octreotide is used only when other medications fail.

Electrical pacing: Electrical pacing of the stomach is a newer method for treating severe gastroparesis. Electrical pacing of the stomach is analogous to cardiac pacing for the treatment of an abnormally slow heartbeat and involves the placement of a pacemaker. The pacemaker usually is placed laparoscopically and does not require a large abdominal incision for entering the abdomen. During placement, wire electrodes are attached to the muscle of the stomach. The wires are brought out through the abdominal wall just beneath the skin. The wires are attached to a small, battery-operated pacemaker that is buried in a surgically-created pouch just under the skin. The skin is then sutured so that the pacemaker and wires are beneath the skin. The pacemaker generates electrical impulses that are transmitted by the wires to the muscles of the stomach, and the muscles contract in response to the impulses. Electrical pacing is effective in many patients with severe gastroparesis, but the numbers of patients who have been treated is small.

Surgery: Surgery occasionally is used to treat gastroparesis. The goal of surgery is to create a larger opening between the stomach and the intestine in order to aid the process of emptying the stomach's contents. Alternatively, the entire stomach may be removed. These procedures should be considered only when all other measures have failed because of the potential complications from the surgery. Surgery should be done only by surgeons in consultation with gastroenterologists who are knowledgeable and experienced in caring for patients with gastrointestinal motility disorders (disorders of the nerves or muscles of the gastrointestinal tract that affect digestion and transport of food).

Maintaining nutrition

Patients with mild gastroparesis usually can be successfully managed with pain relievers and pro-motility medications, but patients with severe gastroparesis often require repeated hospitalizations to correct dehydration, malnutrition and to control symptoms.

Treatment options for dehydration and malnutrition include:

  1. Intravenous fluids to correct dehydration and replenish electrolytes if nutrition is adequate but symptoms occasionally interrupt the intake of even liquid food.
  2. Enteral nutrition which provides liquid food directly into the small intestine, bypassing the paralyzed stomach.
  3. Intravenous total parenteral nutrition (TPN) to provide calories and nutrients (TPN is a fluid containing glucose, amino acids, lipids, minerals, and vitamins-everything that is needed for adequate nutrition-intravenously. The fluid usually is delivered into a large vein via a catheter in the arm or upper chest.)

Doctors generally prefer enteral nutrition over TPN because long-term use of TPN is associated with infections of the catheter and liver damage. Infection can spread through the blood to the rest of the body, a serious condition called sepsis. Catheter-related sepsis often requires treatment with intravenous antibiotics and removal of the infected catheter or replacement with a new catheter. TPN also can damage the liver, most commonly causing abnormal liver tests in the blood. TPN-induced liver damage usually is mild and reversible (the liver test abnormalities return to normal after cessation of TPN), but, rarely, irreversible liver failure can occur. Such liver failure may require liver transplantation.

Enteral nutrition is safe and effective. The two common means of delivering enteral nutrition are via naso-jejunal tubes or jejunostomy tubes. The jejunum is the part of the small intestine just past the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine just beyond the stomach. Both naso-jejunal tubes and jejunostomy tubes are designed to bypass the stomach and deliver nutrients into the jejunum where they can be absorbed.

A naso-jejunal tube is a long, thin catheter inserted (usually by a radiologist or a gastroenterologist) via the nostril into the stomach. The tip of the naso-jejunal tube is then advanced past the stomach into the small intestine. Often this must be done during upper GI endoscopy. Liquid nutrients then can be delivered via the naso-jejunal tube into the small intestine. Naso-jejunal tubes generally are safe, but there are cosmetic disadvantages and discomfort of having a tube in the nose. The problems that occur with naso-jejunal tubes are primarily accidental or intentional removal by the patient, blockage of the tube by solidified nutritional solutions, and aspiration (backup of stomach contents into the lungs that can lead to pneumonia).

A jejunostomy is a catheter placed directly into the jejunum. It can be done during standard abdominal surgery, using minimally invasive techniques (laparoscopy), or by a specially-trained radiologist. With a jejunostomy, the catheter passes through the skin on the abdominal wall and directly into the jejunum. Before a jejunostomy is placed, a trial of naso-jejunal nutrition often is given to be certain that the small bowel is not involved with the same motility problem as the stomach and that nutritional liquids infused into the small intestine will be tolerated.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/23/2016

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