What Is a Gastric Emptying Study?

What Is a Gastric Emptying StudyUsing nuclear medicine, a gastric emptying study determines how quickly food leaves the patient’s stomach and enters the small intestine after a meal. Slow gastric emptying can cause uncomfortable symptoms and, left untreated, may become a serious medical condition. A doctor will order a gastric emptying study, also known as a gastric emptying test or scan, when he or she suspects a patient’s stomach is emptying slowly.
A physician might order this test for any patient who vomits frequently, feels bloated after eating, or experiences abdominal pain after meals. Doctors commonly use gastric emptying studies to diagnose gastroparesis, a medical condition in which the muscles of the stomach do not work properly. Gastroparesis may also cause weight loss and changes in blood sugar.

The Gastric Emptying Study Procedure

A gastric emptying study differs from a regular x-ray in that it uses a small amount of radioactive material, which emits photon energy. Special cameras capture this energy and use it to create computerized images of the digestive tract in motion. The test can take anywhere from 90 minutes to six hours, depending on how long it takes for the stomach to empty.
The gastric emptying study involves eating a bland meal – usually a scrambled egg or egg substitute – containing a small amount of radioactive material. The technician uses an external camera that scans the abdomen to monitor the progress of the food as it enters and leaves the stomach. A radiologist then measures the rate of gastric emptying at one, two, three, and four hours after the meal. If more than 10 percent of the food remains in the patient’s stomach four hours after the meal, the gastric emptying scan confirms the diagnosis of gastroparesis.
Left unchecked, gastroparesis can lead to a variety of health issues, including:

  • Persistent vomiting, resulting in severe dehydration.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), requiring reflux surgery to treat irritation of the esophagus.
  • Solid masses of indigestible material, known as bezoars, which can cause nausea, vomiting, and obstruction; bezoars can also interfere with the absorption of oral medications.
  • Difficulty controlling blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.
  • Poor absorption of nutrients or low calorie intake, resulting in malnutrition.
  • Diminished quality of life and work absences resulting from severe symptoms.

Patients struggling with symptoms of slow stomach emptying should contact a physician to find out if a gastric emptying study is right for them.