Causes and Risk Factors of Gastric Motility Disorders

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Gastric motility (or gastrointestinal motility) is the process by which food travels through the digestive tract via a series of muscular contractions called peristalsis. When someone has a gastric motility disorder, these contractions do not occur normally, and food is not able to pass through the intestines properly. "Gastric motility disorders" is an umbrella term for a variety of individual disorders, each of which has different causes.

Woman sleeping with a hot water bottle
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What Is Gastric Motility?

In normal digestion, food is moved through the digestive tract by rhythmic contractions called peristalsis. This process is called gastric motility.

Once you swallow food, it is moved down the esophagus by peristalsis. The muscles in the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine then continue the process, keeping the food moving as it's digested by digestive juices, including stomach acids and bile, that are added along the way. Finally, the digested food is excreted through the anus.

With gastric motility disorders, this process can happen more quickly or slowly than normal.

Common Causes

Gastric 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.

Gastrointestinal motility can be impaired due to:

  • A problem within the muscles that control peristalsis
  • A problem with the nerves or hormones that govern the muscles' contractions

There are many conditions that can lead to one or both of these problems.

Types of Motility Disorders

Here are six of the most common conditions that are associated with gastrointestinal motility disorders.

Gastroparesis

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 nerves that control the stomach muscles are damaged, food will move too slowly into the intestine, causing nausea, burping, bloating, heartburn, indigestion, regurgitation, or vomiting.

The most common known cause of gastroparesis is diabetes, which accounts for about one-third of cases.

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 quickly or too slowly, leading to diarrhea or constipation, respectively. These abnormal muscle contractions also contribute to pain and the other symptoms of IBS.

Esophageal Spasms

Esophageal spasms are irregular contractions of the muscles in your esophagus, which is the tube that carries 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.

In some cases, symptoms of esophageal spasms may mimic those of a heart attack. If you are experiencing chest pain along with heart palpitations, tightness in the chest, or pain in an arm or your neck, call your doctor or go the the emergency room.

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 similar to those caused by an obstruction or blockage in the bowel. But upon examination, no blockage is found. Instead, the symptoms are due to nerve or muscle problems that affect the movement of food, fluid, and air through the intestines.

Achalasia

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 burping.

Risk Factors

In many cases, gastric motility disorders are considered idiopathic, meaning there is no known cause for their occurrence. However, your risk of having one may increase due to:

Underlying conditions

Many conditions include problems with gastric motility among their symptoms. A few of the more common ones include:

Diabetes: It is estimated that 20% to 50% of people with diabetes also have gastroparesis. High blood sugar levels may damage the nerves controlling the stomach and small intestine, leading to the problem.

Scleroderma: Scleroderma is an autoimmune disease that causes 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.

Neurological disorders: Common diseases that can affect gastrointestinal function are stroke, Parkinson's disease, and multiple sclerosis.

Thyroid disorders: Studies have found that hypothyroidism, in which there is a deficiency of thyroid hormone, is associated with decreased gastrointestinal motility.

Genetics

Genes are thought to play a role in certain gastric motility disorders, such as Hirschsprung's disease, intestinal pseudo-obstruction, and GERD. Underlying conditions, including autoimmune diseases, that are associated with gastrointestinal motility problems, can also be genetic.

Lifestyle

Getting regular aerobic exercise is thought to improve gastrointestinal motility in some patients. It's commonly recommended to help treat and prevent constipation.

Probiotics, beneficial bacteria that are found in yogurt and also come in supplement form, may also help regulate GI function, though research supporting its use for this purpose isn't definitive.

Opioid pain medications such as hydrocodone and oxycodone can slow down gastric motility and cause constipation. It is thought that as many as 81% of people who take opioids experience constipation, even when they take laxatives.

A Word From Verywell

Gastric motility disorders can be uncomfortable and sometimes serious. Some are easier to treat than others. If you're having symptoms of a gastrointestinal motility disorder, talk to your doctor, who can refer you to a gastroenterologist if necessary. Treatment will vary based on the cause of your specific disorder.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is peristalsis?

Peristalsis refers to the rhythmic contractions of muscles in the digestive tract that move food from the esophagus to the stomach, and through the intestines to the anus.

How can you improve gut motility? 

Some research has shown that regular aerobic exercise as well as probiotics (beneficial bacteria available in yogurt and in supplement form) can improve gut motility, but studies on these benefits are not definitive.

What foods slow gastric motility? 

Foods that slow down the intestines include bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. This is known as the BRAT diet and is often recommended to help with diarrhea. It is meant to be used temporarily, as limiting your diet to these foods does not provide adequate nutrition.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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