Causes of Gastrointestinal Motility Disorders

8 Disorders That Interfere With Gastric Motility

In normal digestion, food is moved through the digestive tract by rhythmic contractions called peristalsis. This movement is called "gastric motility." When someone suffers from a digestive motility disorder, these contractions don't work the way they should, potentially leading to a variety of problems.

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Intestinal walls consist of layers of muscles. In normal conditions, these muscles contract and relax in a coordinated, rhythmic fashion that propels food from the esophagus to the stomach, and through the intestine to the anus.

But, in the presence of a motility disorder, these contractions don't occur in a coordinated fashion. This results in food not passing through the intestine properly.


Gastrointestinal motility disorders may cause a wide range of digestive symptoms, including difficulty swallowing, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), gas, severe constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, vomiting, and bloating.

The problem with your digestive muscles can be due to one of two causes:

  • A problem within the muscle that controls peristalsis
  • A problem with the nerves or hormones that govern the muscle's contractions

There are many conditions that can cause problems with either of these two muscles or the nerves that control them. If you're having symptoms of a digestive motility disorder, you should see a gastroenterologist to obtain a proper diagnosis since treatment will vary based on the cause of your problem.


There's a variety of digestive and non-digestive conditions that are associated with gastrointestinal motility disorders. Here are eight of them.


Gastroparesis is also known as "delayed gastric emptying" (in other words, a stomach that's slow in emptying itself). Your stomach muscles govern the movement of partly digested food through your stomach and into your small intestine.

When the nerve that controls the stomach muscles are damaged, food will move too slowly into the intestine, causing nausea, belching, bloating, heartburn, indigestion, regurgitation, or vomiting.

In some people, the only symptom of gastroparesis will be feeling full after eating a few bites. In most cases, doctors will not be able to identify the cause of gastroparesis.


You probably don't think of diabetes as a condition that affects your digestive system, but in fact 20% to 50% of the people with diabetes also have gastroparesis; diabetes is the most common known cause of that gastric motility disorder. High blood sugar levels may be to blame for the problem.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is considered a "functional" digestive condition, which means it affects how your digestive system works but doesn't damage the organs themselves.

When you have IBS, your digestive motility is altered, moving either too fast or too slowly leading to diarrhea or constipation respectively. The abnormal muscle contractions also cause pain.

Esophageal Spasms

These are irregular contractions of the muscles in your esophagus, which is the tube that carries your food from your mouth down to your stomach. It's not clear why these irregular contractions occur, although, in some people, food that's too hot or too cold can trigger them.

Severe esophageal spasms may cause chest pain, rapid heartbeats, and shooting pains in the arm and neck, mimicking angina. This makes it all the more important to see a doctor to ensure you are not at risk of a heart attack.

Hirschsprung's Disease

Hirschsprung's disease is a congenital disorder in which poor digestive motility causes a blockage in the large intestine. It's far more common in boys than in girls, and it's sometimes linked to other major inherited conditions, such as Down syndrome.

Chronic Intestinal Pseudo-Obstruction

Chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction is a rare condition with symptoms that make it look as though your large intestine is blocked, even though it's not. Instead, problems with the nerves that control your digestive muscles are to blame.


Scleroderma, an autoimmune disease, involves a tightening of the skin and connective tissues, but it also can affect your digestive system. GERD and intestinal pseudo-obstruction are common in people with scleroderma.


Achalasia involves the ring of muscle at the bottom of your esophagus through which food enters the stomach. When you have achalasia, this ring fails to relax during swallowing, so food doesn't move as easily from the esophagus into the stomach.

Symptoms include chest pain, regurgitation, heartburn, difficulty swallowing, and difficulty belching.

Achalasia may cause the accidental aspiration of food and saliva into the lungs, leading to pneumonia, pulmonary infections, and even death.

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