If you ask people to list the parts of their digestive tract, you will hear the names of all the big players such as the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. Some people may even mention the names of more specific parts of these organs like the duodenum. There are a few parts of your gastrointestinal tract that are less well known, but still very important. This includes the gateways that control how food moves through your GI tract, called sphincters. 

Getting to Know the Pyloric Sphincter


Throughout your digestive tract, you can find bands of smooth muscle called sphincters that separate sections of your digestive system. These muscles are the gateways that allow food and gastric juices to pass from one part of your digestive tract to the next. When they are functioning normally, they act as one-way valves, moving food from the esophagus, through the stomach, down through the intestines, and finally out of your body. 

If you were to take a look at your stomach, you would find a small section at the lower end called the pylorus. This is the place where the stomach connects to the duodenum, which is the first section of the small intestine. Between the pylorus and the duodenum, you can find the pyloric sphincter.

What is the Pyloric Sphincter’s Function?


The pyloric sphincter muscle is responsible for controlling how partially digested food, called chyme, moves from your stomach and into your intestines in a timely manner. This process, known as gastric emptying, should happen at an optimal rate to ensure good digestion. Keeping food in the stomach for too long can contribute to pain, vomiting and poor digestion. Allowing gastric juices to pass into the duodenum too rapidly can contribute to irritation of the duodenal wall. 

Holding food in your stomach for the appropriate amount of time helps ensure your body gets the right signals about how full you are. The rate at which food leaves your stomach is also important for proper digestion, as optimal digestion demands to keep food in contact with your stomach acid for the appropriate amount of time. 

Which Conditions Involve the Pyloric Sphincter?


Like any other part of the body, things can and do go wrong with your pyloric sphincter. When things are going normally, the contractions and movements of your stomach and duodenum during digestion, known as peristalsis, tell your pyloric sphincter when to open and close. It is possible, though, for this process to be interrupted. Some conditions that can affect the pyloric sphincter are pyloric stenosis, bile reflux, and gastroparesis. 

Pyloric Stenosis

Feeding and caring for a healthy infant is hard enough, but it can get even harder when they are diagnosed with hypertrophic pyloric stenosis. This uncommon condition, which may be partly genetic, is a state in which food does not pass out of the stomach and into the small intestine as it should. Surgery is necessary to correct this condition, as a new passage must be made to allow food to pass into the duodenum. 

If your child has pyloric stenosis, they may experience forceful vomiting after feeding, hunger after vomiting, small stools, constipation, and dehydration. It is also possible your child may have trouble gaining weight and may be understandably irritable. 

Gastroparesis

As people grow older, there can be other troubles with the pyloric sphincter. Gastroparesis is another condition where the sphincter does not open as it should. If you have gastroparesis, the wavelike contractions of peristalsis will be weaker, making it harder for your body to push food through the pyloric sphincter.

Gastroparesis is typically accompanied by symptoms such as acid reflux, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, bloating, a feeling of being full after only eating a small amount of food, weight loss, and fluctuations in blood sugar. 

Gastroparesis can sometimes be treated by changes in diet and lifestyle. By eating softer foods, and eating several times a day, you can make it easier for your stomach to pass food into the duodenum. You may also have to carefully watch the levels of glucose in your blood, and possibly change your diet or lifestyle to keep your blood sugar in check.

Bile Reflux

Unlike the two conditions previously mentioned, it is possible for your pyloric sphincter to stop doing its job by letting too much through rather than not enough. If you have a condition called bile reflux, bile excreted into your small intestine can work its way back up into the stomach. 

If you are suffering from bile reflux, you will likely experience heartburn on a regular basis. Nausea, vomiting green or yellow vomit, and unexplained weight loss are also possible, as is upper abdominal pain. This condition is often associated with gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD

It is possible you may need to have surgery if your bile reflux disease is severe enough. Many people suffering from this condition can find relief by taking proton-pump inhibitors or other medications.

Should I Talk to My Doctor?


Any problem with your gastrointestinal system has the potential to be quite serious. Anytime you are experiencing chronic vomiting or unexplained weight loss, you should consult your doctor. Getting the nutrition you need is very important, and there are other reasons to be careful with gastrointestinal conditions. 

Since many different conditions share common symptoms, it can be difficult to diagnose a condition on your own. It is also possible another, a more serious condition may be hiding behind what looks like recognizable symptoms.  If you think you may be suffering from a condition related to your pyloric sphincter, book an appointment at Carolina Digestive today. We can help you make sense of your symptoms, understand what might be causing them, and help you establish a treatment plan that can help you heal.