Gastroparesis is not normally life threatening, but its complications can be. Left untreated, it can cause severe gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding and bowel obstructions.

Gastroparesis, also called delayed gastric emptying, means stomach paralysis. It causes slow or nonexistent movement of food through the digestive system.

Many health conditions, including diabetes, postsurgical complications, and neurological disorders, may cause gastroparesis.

Left untreated, gastroparesis can lead to significant complications. It may also be linked to a higher death rate. For example, a 2022 study suggests gastroparesis correlates with a higher risk of dying independent of other risk factors.

Read on to learn more about gastroparesis complications.

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Gastroparesis is not usually fatal. However, it can be in rare cases.

For instance, gastroparesis may cause complications, such as GI obstruction, that can be fatal. Gastroparesis may also signal the presence of underlying conditions, such as diabetes and collagen vascular disorders, which can be life threatening.

Additionally, a 2022 study suggests gastroparesis may be a predictor of mortality.

Researchers found that independent of body mass index (BMI), age, sex, and diabetes status, delayed gastric emptying predicted a higher risk of dying during the study period.

This does not mean gastroparesis caused the deaths. Instead, gastroparesis may signal poorer overall health.

A 2021 study involving people with gastroparesis in a hospital setting in the United States found 3.19 deaths per 1,000 hospitalized people.

The study’s authors caution that people hospitalized for gastroparesis are already in worse health, so this mortality rate may not indicate the overall mortality rate.

Gastroparesis can cause many complications, especially if a person does not seek treatment. They include:

Some of these complications can be fatal if left untreated. Additionally, the complications of gastroparesis may worsen underlying diseases, such as diabetes.

The symptoms of gastroparesis include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • bloating
  • heartburn
  • frequent belching
  • low appetite
  • feeling very full after starting a meal
  • pain in the upper abdomen

These symptoms can be similar to many other illnesses, so they can be overlooked. However, if a person experiences multiple symptoms, they should contact a doctor.

A person’s gastroparesis may be considered severe if they also have:

  • red or coffee ground-colored vomit
  • severe, sharp pain in the abdomen
  • fever
  • feeling weak
  • trouble breathing
  • dry mouth
  • extreme thirst
  • dark urine
  • fainting

A doctor may suspect gastroparesis based on a person’s symptoms, especially if the person has certain risk factors, such as diabetes or taking medication that slows digestion.

A doctor may then order blood work to rule out other potential causes or to look for infection.

Additionally, a doctor might order imaging tests of the upper GI system. This often includes an endoscopy, which involves inserting a long flexible tube into the stomach through the throat.

A doctor may also order tests to measure stomach emptying and digestive time.

For example, one test involves eating a substance that gets absorbed into the breath. A doctor then measures how quickly the substance appears in the breath. A person can also swallow a pill that measures digestive time.

Treatment depends on the severity of symptoms. In mild cases, a person may not need immediate treatment.

For more severe cases, treatment options include:

  • Medication: Antinausea and pain medication can reduce nausea and ease pain. Metoclopramide is the only medication the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved for gastroparesis. Another medication, domperidone, may also help, but it can cause side effects, such as heart arrhythmias.
  • Dietary changes: Eating foods low in fat and fiber can lower the risk of additional episodes of gastroparesis. Smaller, more frequent meals can also help.
  • Physical activity: Gentle physical activity after a meal may help relieve symptoms.
  • Treating underlying conditions: Treating and managing underlying health conditions, especially diabetes, can reduce the risk of gastroparesis.
  • Alternative feeding: Tube feeding may help a person with malnourishment absorb sufficient nutrients.

A person should contact a doctor if they have:

  • intense abdominal pain
  • feelings of illness after eating very little
  • feeling very sick along with digestive symptoms
  • fever and abdominal pain
  • digestive problems associated with a new medication or a health condition
  • signs of severe dehydration, such as sunken eyes

Gastroparesis ranges from a mild issue to a chronic, severely painful condition. In extreme cases, it can cause complications that are life threatening.

It can also signal underlying health conditions that may increase the risk of death.

Gastroparesis is not usually fatal, but treatment can prevent it from coming back or causing serious complications.