Gastric Emptying Test (GET)

Need Gastroparesis Treatment in Orange County? Hoag Can Help.

Digestive symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, bloating and bowel changes can be shared by a range of different gastrointestinal disorders, each with its own treatment course. If you’re facing symptoms that have you worried, as Orange County’s highest-volume digestive health center, Hoag has the tools, talent and technology to accurately diagnose and treat even uncommon GI tract disorders like gastroparesis, gastric motility issues and more. 

Need gastroparesis treatment in Orange County? You deserve the best care. Hoag is here, and we can help. Contact us today.

What Is a Gastric Emptying Study?

A gastric emptying study, sometimes referred to as a gastric emptying scan or gastric emptying scintigraphy, is a specialized nuclear medicine test that evaluates the rate at which the food you eat exits the stomach and enters the small intestine.

During the test, patients are usually asked to eat a light meal containing a harmless radioactive material that can be visualized by a special medical device. The radioactive material allows the food to be tracked as it moves through the body.

In doing so, the gastric emptying scan gives physicians way to directly see the movement of food through the patient’s digestive tract. This gives healthcare providers a way to fully examine the function of the upper gastrointestinal system and help them better understand any factors that might delay gastric emptying.

What Medical Conditions Can Gastric Emptying Studies Help Diagnose?

The primary purpose of a gastric emptying scan is to diagnose gastroparesis, a condition in which the stomach empties too slowly into the small intestine, even though there’s no physical blockage.

A gastric emptying scan can also help diagnose other conditions of the upper digestive tract including:

It’s important to carefully diagnose these conditions, as treatment options differ from condition to condition, even though they often produce similar symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating, early satiety and recurring nausea.

How Is a Gastric Emptying Study Performed?

Before the gastric emptying scan, patients are usually given a small, standardized meal, often consisting of scrambled eggs or the egg substitute Egg Beaters.

This meal is infused with a tasteless radioactive material. This material can be seen from outside the body with a special kind of nuclear medicine scanner.

After the meal ingestion, this specialized nuclear medicine technology is placed close to the patient’s torso and captures images of the upper digestive tract at regular intervals.

Through these images, doctors can track the meal’s progress as it moves down the esophagus, into the stomach and on to the small intestine. This helps determine how long it takes for food to leave the stomach — what’s known as the patient’s gastric emptying time — and the efficiency of the stomach’s emptying process.

Sometimes, physicians will order specialized gastric emptying studies that measure how foods of different types or consistencies move through the digestive system.

During a liquid gastric emptying study (a “liquid study”), patients are asked to drink a liquid containing the radioactive tracer, to see how quickly fluids alone move through the GI tract. In a solid emptying study (a “solid study”), patients are asked to eat a meal of solid foods like toast or eggs.

How Is a Gastric Emptying Study Better or Different Than Other Tests That Diagnose The Same Conditions?

While there are a variety of tools that can be used to diagnose gastroparesis and other conditions of the upper GI tract, gastric emptying studies are different from these approaches because they can give healthcare providers a way to directly visualize the movement of food through the upper digestive system –  gastric motility – as it happens. Learn more about Hoag Digestive Health Institute’s Motility Program.

In this way, gastric emptying studies offer a more comprehensive and accurate assessment of problems like delayed gastric emptying, making the test a preferred choice of many nuclear medicine physicians for evaluating and diagnosing gastroparesis.

Are There Any Potential Side Effects Or Complications Of a Gastric Emptying Study?

Gastric emptying studies are generally considered safe. However, there is some radiation exposure due to the radioactive material ingested during the test.

The amount of radiation utilized during a gastric emptying study is low – about what you’d receive during many common X-ray procedures – and is deemed safe for most patients.

However, always inform your healthcare provider of any allergies or medical conditions you might have before the test, as there is a slight risk of allergic reaction to the radioactive tracer material. Also tell your doctor if you’re pregnant or think you might be pregnant, as radiation can impact fetal development.

What Do I Need To Do To Prepare For a Gastric Emptying Study?

Be sure to follow your healthcare provider’s instructions exactly, but preparation for a gastric emptying study usually involves fasting, with patients advised not to eat or drink anything for several hours before the test.

Some medications, especially those that might affect the speed which food moves through the digestive system, might also need to be adjusted before the gastric emptying study, so be sure to consult with your doctor about any medications, supplements or over-the-counter medicines you may be taking before the test.

Patients Ask, Hoag Answers.

Is a gastric emptying study safe for every patient?

Most patients can safely undergo a gastric emptying test without complications. However, those who are pregnant, might be pregnant or who are planning to become pregnant soon should inform their doctor or the nuclear medicine physician conducting the test due to potential radiation risks to the fetus.

Are there any side effects of a gastric emptying study?

While most patients do not experience side effects during or after gastric emptying scintigraphy, there’s a slight chance of an allergic reaction to the radioactive material. It’s essential to inform the medical team of any known allergies.

You should also tell your healthcare provider if you are pregnant or might be pregnant, or if you have any issues that make it hard to lay still for extended periods of time, as the test can take up to four hours.

Is it safe to do a gastric emptying study if I’m pregnant or immunocompromised?

Those who are pregnant should likely avoid the gastric emptying study due to potential radiation risks to fetal development and health. Immunocompromised patients can likely undergo the test without problems, but it’s important to discuss any concerns with your healthcare provider.

Can a gastric emptying study show cancer?

A gastric emptying scan isn’t the best imaging technology to diagnose cancerous tumors or lesions anywhere in the body, and isn’t used by healthcare providers for that purpose.
Gastric emptying scans are very good at showing how long it takes for food to pass through the upper gastrointestinal tract. That can be important in diagnosing certain gastric motility disorders, including gastroparesis (AKA delayed gastric emptying).

Gastroparesis can be a symptom of certain types of cancer, so a confirmed diagnosis of delayed gastric emptying will likely lead to other specialized radiological imaging that’s much better at detecting the presence of cancer.

What is a solid meal study?

A solid meal study is a type of gastric emptying study that helps determine a patient’s gastric motility — the speed at which solid food moves through the digestive system — to help diagnose or rule out rapid gastric emptying or delayed gastric emptying.

There’s also another specialized type of gastric emptying study known as a “liquid study,” which tests liquid gastric emptying compared to gastric emptying after eating solid foods. For this test, patients are asked to drink a liquid meal that includes a small amount of radioactive material, which is tracked as it moves through the gastrointestinal system.

Is a gastric emptying study painful?

Gastric emptying scintigraphy is non-invasive and usually painless. The only discomfort patients might experience during a gastric emptying scan should be hunger from having nothing to eat or drink before the test, or mild body pain from being asked to lie flat and still as the test is conducted, which can take up to four hours.

The discomfort you might experience while lying still for that amount of time can depend greatly on your unique muscle, skeletal or joint issues, so be sure to discuss any health issues you have with your doctor before the gastric emptying test.

Does a gastric emptying study involve radiation or radioactive substances?

Yes, the gastric emptying study involves ingesting a small amount of radioactive material with a meal, which acts as a tracer so the movement of food through the digestive system can be tracked using a nuclear medicine camera. However, the radiation dose involved is minimal and considered safe.

How long does it take to complete a gastric emptying scan?

The test’s duration can vary from patient to patient but can last up to 4 hours. Patients are to remain still as the gamma camera collects images during the imaging process.

When can I expect to receive the results of a gastric emptying study?

Test results of a gastric emptying study are usually available within a few days. During that time, a nuclear medicine physician will analyze the images and provide a comprehensive report to the referring doctor.