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Pacemaker helps treat stomach disorder

January 4, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
Gastroparesis is a disorder that paralyzes the stomach so it can't function properly and causes the stomach to take a longer than normal time to empty its contents. Patients with the condition can't even eat a sandwich without getting sick to their stomachs.There's no cure, but a new pacemaker is helping some people eat normally.

Kandra Burleson, who has gastroparesis, used to spend most days too nauseous to eat or even leave the house.

"Not going anywhere, not eating anything. Just laying in bed or running to the bathroom," said Burleson.

Her stomach couldn't digest food, and no medicine or treatment helped.

"I did not want to live like this anymore, no. Living like ? it's not living," said Burleson.

Her last resort was having surgery to give her a new kind of stomach stimulator. Surgeons implanted a generator in the abdomen, with wires sending electrical signals to the stomach to suppress the nausea.

"It's nothing painful or anything like that, but you can feel it sending the movement into your stomach," said Burleson.

It isn't a cure, but studies show the implant can reduce chronic nausea and vomiting by more than 80 percent and reduce hospital visits for people with severe stomach problems by up to 70 percent.

"By suppressing the nausea, it will work well enough so that they can continue to keep the food down. They can avoid the malnutrition and the dehydration, and they can get on with their lives," said general surgeon Dr. Todd Wood.

Five months after getting the implant, Burleson's gained 15 pounds and is doing a little better each day.

"Just to feel better a little bit, I promised myself that if I could get my life back, I would make the best of it, and that's what I'm doing," said Burleson.

In many cases of gastroparesis, doctors don't know why patients develop the disorder. The most common cause of the condition is type one or type 2 diabetes.

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GASTROPARESIS: Gastroparesis is a disorder that causes the stomach to take a longer than normal time to empty its contents. The vagus nerve controls food movement through the intestines, and when it is damaged, the muscles of the stomach and intestines do not work properly; food may move slowly down the digestive tract or stop moving completely.

CAUSES OF GASTROPARESIS: The leading cause of gastroparesis is diabetes. People who have diabetes have high blood pressure, which can cause chemical changes in nerves and damage blood vessels. Over time, high blood pressure/sugar can damage the vagus nerve and thus leave it impaired. A few other causes of gastroparesis include viral infections, anorexia nervosa or bulimia, surgery on the stomach or vagus nerve, medications that slow intestine contractions, gastroesophgeal reflux disease, nervous system diseases, metabolic disorders and smooth muscle disorders (Source: National Institutes of Health).

RISKS WITH GASTROPARESIS: If it takes too long for the food to be processed through the intestines, it can cause bacterial overgrowth and can harden into solids, or bezoars that can cause nausea, vomiting and obstruction inside the stomach. Bezoars can cause dangerous complications if they block food passage into the small intestine.

STOMACH PACEMAKER: Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital surgeons are performing a unique surgery to treat the symptoms of gastroparesis called gastric electric stimulation. It involves implanting a stomach "pacemaker," a small device implanted underneath the skin in the lower abdomen that sends mild electrical impulses. These impulses stimulate nerves and smooth the muscles of the stomach. The device is intended to reduce symptoms of chronic nausea and vomiting closely associated with gastroparesis. Though the device is coined a "pacemaker," Dr. Todd Wood, general surgeon at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital in Houston, Texas, says the device is more accurately described as a "stimulator."