What Is Digestive Tract Paralysis? Symptoms, Causes, And Treatment

Digestive tract paralysis refers to an inefficient movement of several parts of the digestive tract which interferes with your regular digestion. In our digestive system, peristalsis or the rhythmic movement of smooth muscles keeps food moving throughout the tract. In people with digestive tract paralysis, the muscles of the digestive tract are unable to contract and expand efficiently, thereby slowing the movement of food. Digestive tract paralysis can manifest as one of two conditions – gastroparesis or partial paralysis of the stomach; and chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction, a similar paralysis of the intestines as opposed to the stomach.


People suffering from gastroparesis exhibit symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and a feeling of fullness. Sometimes, heartburn, night sweats, and lack of appetite are also seen. Secondary conditions such as malnutrition and dehydration may result from frequent vomiting over the long run.1


In those with chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction, symptoms of actual intestinal obstruction such as nausea, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and loss of appetite are found, but without any real blockage in the intestine. However, all of these symptoms do not exist at the same time – depending on the part of the intestine affected by the pseudo-obstruction, one or more of these symptoms appear.2

Causes Of Digestive Tract Paralysis

Both gastroparesis and chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction have very diverse causes. They can be triggered by muscle function loss or a problem in the nervous system. Sometimes, these disorders can also be inherited from immediate family.3 People who have undergone chemotherapy4 or have other illnesses like multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease5 can also develop digestive tract paralysis.


In gastroparesis specifically, the vagus nerve, which is the main signaling nerve between the brain and the digestive system, is found to be damaged, due to trauma or even a past surgery of the pancreas.6 Diabetes, both type I and type II, is another cause of gastroparesis. The continuous exposure to high sugar levels is believed to damage the vagus nerve. However, while diabetes is associated with gastroparesis, the mechanism behind this isn’t yet understood in detail.7

Treating Digestive Tract Paralysis

Most treatments aim to alleviate the symptoms. Changes in eating patterns along with medication to treat specific symptoms are the current approaches used to treat both gastroparesis and chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction. Patients are advised to eat foods low in fat and low in fiber to help speed up the process of digestion. Whole-grain cereals, vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and green beans, fruits such as apples, oranges, and berries, and nuts and seeds are best avoided. Have smaller meals 4–6 times a day and stay hydrated with plenty of fluids.8


Medication usually depends on the specific symptoms – anti-vomiting medication is given to those with nausea, while those with diarrhea are prescribed anti-kinetic medication. Prokinetic drugs, on the other hand, can improve bowel movements and reduce nausea and bloating.9

Sometimes, in cases of severe malnutrition, the patient may need hospital-supervised intravenous nutrition for a while before they’re able to manage the condition on their own.10


Some novel approaches to treatment are also being tried out. In one controlled trial, using a pacemaker of sorts in the digestive tract was found to stimulate the gastric muscles to empty faster, thereby addressing the root of the problem. However, this method is not widely used yet due to the cumbersome nature of the equipment.11 Similar research for chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction has not been done so far.

Some natural approaches can work well in bringing relief to people with digestive tract paralysis. If you suffer from this condition on and off, you probably have a transient condition that is being triggered by stress. Both deep breathing and meditative chanting can help control stress. They are also known to stimulate the vagus nerve and improve its function.12 Ginger has been found effective in treating gastric disorders by reducing the production of prostaglandins that hamper digestive movements.13 Triphala, an Ayurvedic formulation, can also improve bowel function and motility.14 Various animal studies also support triphala’s role as a potential alternative to prokinetic drugs.15


Traditional Chinese Medicine recommends acupuncture alongside herbal treatments to alleviate signs of digestive tract paralysis. In one case study, a treatment that combined acupuncture sessions twice a week with the Chinese herbal medicine Xiao Ban Xia Jia Fu Ling Tang was found to bring relief to a woman with gastroparesis – gastric emptying moved up from 25% at 2 hours to 84% at 2 hours within 5 sessions of treatment.16 In people with diabetic gastroparesis too, acupuncture had a total effective rate of 94.2% in reducing symptoms.17

Whatever treatment you choose, do see a certified practitioner first, not just to ensure you have the right diagnosis, but also to understand how and when these procedures and therapies can be tried.