What is Stuck Stomach?
A “stuck stomach” is a colloquial term that refers to a condition in which a person experiences an unusual sensation of food getting stuck in the stomach and not moving any further. This sensation may or may not be due to some disturbance or disease. In some cases, a physical obstruction to the movement of food and fluids in the stomach may indeed be present.
The stomach may even become strangulated. Only vague symptoms may arise at the onset of such a condition. With passing time, the symptoms may become more severe. Two of the most common causes of delayed gastric emptying are hiatal hernia and gastroparesis. Understanding these causes will help in understanding the nature of the unusual feeling of something being stuck in the stomach.
Read more on bloating and gas.
How food can become stuck?
The human digestive tract is a long convoluted tube that is composed of many different parts. The food we ingest through the mouth is swallowed into the esophagus, which is a long tube that delivers the food to the stomach. The esophagus starts at the level of the throat, runs down the chest cavity, and enters the upper abdominal cavity through a hole (known as the esophageal hiatus) in the muscular diaphragm.
In the upper abdominal cavity, the esophagus joins the upper part of the stomach. Food that enters the stomach is mechanically broken down by the churning of the stomach. The mechanically broken-down food is also digested chemically (by gastric acid) and enzymatically.
The digestive processes in the stomach eventually convert the food into a semi-liquid entity known as the gastric chyme, which then enters the duodenum (upper part of the small intestine) via the pylorus of the stomach. This orderly movement of food from the stomach into the duodenum is referred to as gastric emptying.
Each part of the digestive tract has a distinct anatomy that enables different functions to be carried out. The proper functioning of each part of the digestive tract is essential for proper digestion and absorption of nutrients contained in the food that we ingest. A malfunction in any region of the digestive tract can affect the functioning of the other parts.
Causes of Stuck Stomach
The esophagus passes from the chest cavity into the abdominal cavity through a small hole in the diaphragm. This hole (known as the esophageal hiatus) is usually small and tight enough to let only the esophagus pass through. However, in hiatal hernia, the upper part of the stomach also manages to slip through this hole and enter the chest cavity.
This causes the upper part of the stomach to get squeezed, resulting in a variety of symptoms. Apart from the feeling of a stuck stomach, hiatal hernia also causes a burning pain in the chest (frequently referred to as heartburn), difficulty in swallowing, abdominal pain, belching, vomiting (which may contain blood), and a feeling of fullness even after small meals.
Read more on hiatal hernia.
The signs and symptoms of hiatal hernia usually persist for short periods of time, and resolve when the stomach gets unstuck and falls back into the abdominal cavity. Hiatal hernia can be caused by either an injury to the diaphragm, or from repeated pressure on the diaphragm exerted by acts of vomiting, coughing, straining during bowel movements or lifting heavy weights. In some cases, the esophageal hiatus may be abnormally large from birth, making the affected individuals susceptible to hiatal hernias.
The walls of the stomach are composed of smooth muscles that help in the process of gastric emptying. Gastroparesis refers to an abnormal condition in which the muscles of the stomach do not function properly. This causes the food to be retained in the stomach for abnormally long periods (delayed gastric emptying).
The food lodged in the stomach may also get pushed back into the esophagus. Gastroparesis is characterized by a variety of signs and symptoms such as feeling of fullness in the stomach, abdominal pain, abdominal bloating, nausea, vomiting, and changes in appetite.
The most common cause of gastroparesis is damage to the vagus nerve that controls the muscular contractions of the stomach. The vagus nerve may be damaged during surgical procedures or diabetic neuropathy.
Other causes of gastroparesis include Parkinson’s disease, amyloidosis, scleroderma, and medications such as antidepressants and narcotic painkillers. The cause of gastroparesis is not known in all cases. Gastroparesis that occurs without any known cause is referred to as idiopathic gastroparesis.
A stuck stomach can also occur when a foreign body gets lodged within the stomach and obstructs gastric emptying of the stomach contents. Foreign bodies that get lodged in the stomach are usually non-edible objects that are consumed either accidentally or intentionally. Young children often put foreign objects in their mouths during playtime.
If swallowed, these foreign objects may get lodged either within the esophagus or the pylorus of the stomach. The signs and symptoms caused by the lodging of a foreign object in the stomach are mostly the same as the signs and symptoms of gastroparesis.
Small intestine conditions
A stuck stomach can occur due to obstructions within the small intestine (caused by foreign bodies, Crohn’s disease, adhesions resulting from surgery, gallstone ileus, and cancer). Malfunctioning of muscles in the wall of the small intestine can result in pseudo-obstruction. Delayed gastric emptying may also be caused by strangulated hernia of the small intestine, in which a part of the small intestine gets stuck in an abnormal pouch of the abdominal wall.
Large intestine conditions
Problems within the large intestine, such as colonic polyps, fecal impaction and paralysis of the large intestine, can also cause delayed gastric emptying due to backing up of the contents of the colon.
A stuck stomach may also occur due to the effects of certain medications such as anesthetics, narcotic painkillers, and anti-motility drugs that are used to control diarrhea.
The enlargement of uterus during pregnancy can compress the stomach, resulting in delayed gastric emptying and a feeling of stuck stomach.
In infants, signs and symptoms similar to gastroparesis may also be caused by pyloric stenosis. Obstruction and delayed gastric emptying may also be caused by the presence of polyps or tumors within the stomach. These are relatively rarer causes of a stuck stomach, and are often asymptomatic.
The feeling of a stuck stomach may also be due to causes that lie outside the stomach. Since the digestive system is a single continuous tube, obstruction in any one part of the digestive tract may lead to backup of food in previous segments.