Gastric outlet obstruction: A red flag, potentially manageable

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Release date: May 1, 2019
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Gastric outlet obstruction is a common condition in which mechanical obstruction in the distal stomach, pylorus, or duodenum causes nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and early satiety. This article reviews the changing etiology of this disorder and advances in its treatment.


  • Causes of gastric outlet obstruction fall into 2 categories: benign and malignant. The cause should be presumed to be malignant until proven otherwise.
  • Peptic ulcer disease, a benign cause, used to account for most cases of gastric outlet obstruction. It is still common but has declined in frequency with the development of acid-suppressing drugs.
  • Gastric cancer used to be the most common malignant cause but has declined in frequency in Western countries with treatment for Helicobacter pylori infection. Now, pancreatic cancer predominates.
  • Endoscopic stenting is an effective, minimally invasive treatment for patients with malignant gastric outlet obstruction and poor prognosis, allowing resumption of oral intake and improving quality of life.



A 72-year-old woman presents to the emergency department with progressive nausea and vomiting. One week earlier, she developed early satiety and nausea with vomiting after eating solid food. Three days later her symptoms progressed, and she became unable to take anything by mouth. The patient also experienced a 40-lb weight loss in the previous 3 months. She denies symptoms of abdominal pain, hematemesis, or melena. Her medical history includes cholecystectomy and type 2 diabetes mellitus, diagnosed 1 year ago. She has no family history of gastrointestinal malignancy. She says she smoked 1 pack a day in her 20s. She does not consume alcohol.

On physical examination, she is normotensive with a heart rate of 105 beats per minute. The oral mucosa is dry, and the abdomen is mildly distended and tender to palpation in the epigastrium. Laboratory evaluation reveals hypokalemia and metabolic alkalosis.

Computed tomography (CT) reveals a mass 3 cm by 4 cm in the pancreatic head. The mass has invaded the medial wall of the duodenum, with obstruction of the pancreatic and common bile ducts and extension into and occlusion of the superior mesenteric vein, with soft-tissue expansion around the superior mesenteric artery. CT also reveals retained stomach contents and an air-fluid level consistent with gastric outlet obstruction.


Gastric outlet obstruction, also called pyloric obstruction, is caused by intrinsic or extrinsic mechanical blockage of gastric emptying, generally in the distal stomach, pyloric channel, or duodenum, with associated symptoms of nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and early satiety. It is encountered in both the clinic and the hospital.

Here, we review the causes, diagnosis, and management of this disorder.


Table 1. Causes of gastric outlet obstruction
Causes of obstruction are classified as either benign or malignant (Table 1). However, all cases of gastric outlet obstruction should be assumed to be due to underlying malignancy unless proven otherwise.1

In a retrospective study of 76 patients hospitalized with gastric outlet obstruction between 2006 and 2015 at our institution,2 29 cases (38%) were due to malignancy and 47 (62%) were due to benign causes. Pancreatic adenocarcinoma accounted for 13 cases (17%), while gastric adenocarcinoma accounted for 5 cases (7%); less common malignant causes were cholangiocarcinoma, cancer of the ampulla of Vater, duodenal adenocarcinoma, hepatocellular carcinoma, and metastatic disease. Of the benign causes, the most common were peptic ulcer disease (13 cases, 17%) and postoperative strictures or adhesions (11 cases, 14%).

These numbers reflect general trends around the world.

Less gastric cancer, more pancreatic cancer

The last several decades have seen a trend toward more cases due to cancer and fewer due to benign causes.3–14

In earlier studies in both developed and developing countries, gastric adenocarcinoma was the most common malignant cause of gastric outlet obstruction. Since then, it has become less common in Western countries, although it remains more common in Asia and Africa.7–14 This trend likely reflects environmental factors, including decreased prevalence of Helicobacter pylori infection, a major risk factor for gastric cancer, in Western countries.15–17

At the same time, pancreatic cancer is on the rise,16 and up to 20% of patients with pancreatic cancer develop gastric outlet obstruction.18 In a prospective observational study of 108 patients with malignant gastric outlet obstruction undergoing endoscopic stenting, pancreatic cancer was by far the most common malignancy, occurring in 54% of patients, followed by gastric cancer in 13%.19

Less peptic ulcer disease, but still common

Peptic ulcer disease used to account for up to 90% of cases of gastric outlet obstruction, and it is still the most common benign cause.

In 1990, gastric outlet obstruction was estimated to occur in 5% to 10% of all hospital admissions for ulcer-related complications, accounting for 2,000 operations annually.20,21 Gastric outlet obstruction now occurs in fewer than 5% of patients with duodenal ulcer disease and fewer than 2% of patients with gastric ulcer disease.22

Peptic ulcer disease remains an important cause of obstruction in countries with poor access to acid-suppressing drugs.23

Gastric outlet obstruction occurs in both acute and chronic peptic ulcer disease. In acute peptic ulcer disease, tissue inflammation and edema result in mechanical obstruction. Chronic peptic ulcer disease results in tissue scarring and fibrosis with strictures.20

Environmental factors, including improved diet, hygiene, physical activity, and the decreased prevalence of H pylori infection, also contribute to the decreased prevalence of peptic ulcer disease and its complications, including gastric outlet obstruction.3 The continued occurrence of peptic ulcer disease is associated with widespread use of low-dose aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), the most common causes of peptic ulcer disease in Western countries.24,25

Other nonmalignant causes of gastric outlet obstruction are diverse and less common. They include caustic ingestion, postsurgical strictures, benign tumors of the gastrointestinal tract, Crohn disease, and pancreatic disorders including acute pancreatitis, pancreatic pseudocyst, chronic pancreatitis, and annular pancreas. Intramural duodenal hematoma may cause obstruction after blunt abdominal trauma, endoscopic biopsy, or gastrostomy tube migration, especially in the setting of a bleeding disorder or anticoagulation.26

Tuberculosis should be suspected in countries in which it is common.7 In a prospective study of 64 patients with benign gastric outlet obstruction in India,27 16 (25%) had corrosive injury, 16 (25%) had tuberculosis, and 15 (23%) had peptic ulcer disease. Compared with patients with corrosive injury and peptic ulcer disease, patients with gastroduodenal tuberculosis had the best outcomes with appropriate treatment.

Other reported causes include Bouveret syndrome (an impacted gallstone in the proximal duodenum), phytobezoar, diaphragmatic hernia, gastric volvulus, and Ladd bands (peritoneal bands associated with intestinal malrotation).7,28,29

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Dabigatran-induced esophagitis

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