Intestinal dysmotility: causes and treatments explained

Written by: Dr John Martin
Published: | Updated: 20/02/2020
Edited by: Emma McLeod

Your gastrointestinal system is responsible for the digestion of the food you consume. The muscles within it contract in a coordinated way to push the food along your intestine, but in some cases, the muscles can become too weak, strong or uncoordinated. Dr John Martin explains all you need to know about intestinal dysmotility, from causes and symptoms to treatment.


The image contains a woman's both from her upper legs to her next, with a focus on her abdominal area. She is holding her hands over her stomach in discomfort.



What is causes intestinal dysmotility?

Peristalsis is the coordinated contraction of muscles in the bowel wall that pushes food through the gut. But when peristalsis becomes disordered, it’s known as dysmotility, and this means that the intestines do not contract in the normal, orderly way. This could be due to the contractions becoming too strong, too weak or uncoordinated.


All parts of the gut can be affected by dysmotility, but the oesophagus is the most commonly affected. The oesophagus is the part of your digestive system which passes food from the mouth to the stomach. Click here for Dr Martin's article regarding oesophageal dysmotility specifically.


What are the common symptoms of intestinal dysmotility?

The symptoms of intestinal dysmotility are often determined by the part of the gut that is affected. There is a significant overlap between these symptoms and those of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and in both conditions, the symptoms may be long-lasting and significantly affect patients’ quality of life. The common symptoms of intestinal dysmotility are:

  • Abdominal bloating
  • Alteration in bowel habit, particularly constipation
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Feeling full after eating only a small amount of food


What are common secondary causes of dysmotility?

The nerves and muscles that control the intestine are highly complex and we currently do not entirely understand how they work. In patients with intestinal dysmotility, we do know that there is no structural abnormality within the gut and no inflammation, but we do not understand what goes wrong to make the gut contract abnormally. In most cases, no cause is found for the problem, but some medical disorders can cause problems with gut function. These include:

  • Diabetes
  • Use of some medications such as pain killers
  • Other conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, systemic sclerosis
  • Radiation therapy
  • Previous gut surgery


What is the treatment of intestinal dysmotility?

The treatment of intestinal dysmotility is tailored to the individual patient and is directed specifically at reducing symptoms.

  • Diet - There are no foods that restore the functioning and contraction of gut muscles. Often a dietician will help to identify any foods that may trigger symptoms and advise how to avoid these, but still maintain a healthy diet. In other cases, certain diets, such as a low FODMAP diet, can help ease symptoms.
  • Laxatives – these can be helpful in treating constipation
  • Motility agents – these are often used to try and reverse the intestinal dysmotility directly
  • Anti-sickness medications – these can be used to treat nausea and vomiting
  • Antidepressant medications – there is a high incidence of anxiety and depression in patients with symptoms of intestinal dysmotility and these drugs can help with symptoms, even in the absence of low mood or anxiety


If you’re interested in knowing more about dysmotility or any other condition in the field of gastroenterology, don’t hesitate to visit Dr Martin’s Top Doctors profile and book a consultation to discover what he can do for you.

By Dr John Martin

Dr John Martin is a highly-experienced gastroenterologist and endoscopist based in London and holds an NHS Consultant post at Imperial College (ICL). He is an expert in colorectal cancer screening, therapeutic and diagnostic colonoscopy and has 25 years' experience of managing all aspects of gastroenterology including abdominal pain or discomfort, reflux disease, diarrhoea and constipation, rectal bleeding, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis

Graduated from Cambridge University and King’s College Hospital, London in 1990, Dr Martin completed his gastroenterology training within North West London. In 2002, he was awarded an MD from the University of London in bowel cancer screening and became a consultant at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital before joining Charing Cross Hospital in 2006. Dr Martin refined his skills in colonoscopy to ensure they are always safe, high-quality and comfortable for his patients. 

Dr Martin teaches colonoscopy both within the NHS Trust and also at national screening centres. He is a bowel cancer screening accredited colonoscopist and an examiner for BCSP colonoscopy accreditation. He has authored numerous peer reviewed publications.  

Dr Martin is director of the West London Bowel Cancer Screening Centre; he is the national advisor to Public Health England on endoscopy within the Bowel Cancer screening service and chairs the national advisory committee on quality and safety of endoscopy within screening. He forms an integral part of numerous other professional bodies and has been widely published in peer-reviewed journals. 

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