Skip to Accessibility Tools Skip to Content Skip to Footer

Famished but Full: Digestive Problems and Their Relation to MS

We who have MS are accustomed to experiencing sometimes daily changes in our body. We cope with pain, mobility problems, limb weakness, fatigue, and many other symptoms. It comes with the territory. Consequently, it’s hard to recognize changes as those worthy of a visit to the doctor.

MS patients become MS experts

After we’ve had MS for a period of time, we become educated about most of the symptoms MS patients can experience. So, I consider myself a minor expert on the subject and a major one on my own case, having lived with MS for nearly twenty years. I’m sure many of you do, too.

From time to time, something confounding gets our attention: An unfamiliar stitch in the side or pain in an area where there never was pain before. We know our bodies well enough to know this kind of pain or that uncomfortable twinge doesn’t feel like our usual MS symptoms. Still, we give it the benefit of the doubt. We wait it out, hoping it is just our wacky nerves misfiring and causing phantom sensations which will eventually subside and disappear.

Chronic digestive issues

Ravenous hunger is the last thing I would connect with MS. Developing a swollen, bloated belly after eating a very modest amount of food is another. Excessive flatulence, constipation, painful gas, and a feeling of being so full that my ribs hurt and will shatter at any moment are some others. I have suffered these symptoms chronically, every day without fail for more than four years.

As usual, I got online and typed my symptoms into the search box. Two things kept popping up time and again. According to the internet, it’s either Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or cancer. Hmm. The internet does have its limitations. As a differential diagnostics expert it makes a lovely patchwork quilt—and a poor substitute for a good old-fashioned doctor visit.

Treating my symptoms myself

I delayed that doctor visit for more than four years, having had other fish to fry. Instead, I employed Occam’s Razor—the theory that the most likely solution to a problem is the simplest one—and treated my symptoms as though I had IBS: Upped the fiber in my diet and took stool softeners and laxatives. But I did not improve.

MS loves to throw a wrench in our plans

The problem with Occam’s Razor is that multiple sclerosis throws a tire iron into the gears of heuristics, bringing the whole enterprise to a screeching halt. For example, I once had symptoms of maxillary sinusitis and was soon cured with amoxicillin. But a month later, a troublesome symptom—burning in my ears, sinuses, throat and mouth—had come back. Over the next six months I returned to my doctor several times for more antibiotics. But the burning persisted. A visit to an ENT and a CT scan of my sinuses revealed no infection. The diagnosis was neuropathic burning. This is MS-related. I just live with it now.


Let’s go back to the digestive problems and back to the internet once again. A recent search revealed a condition called gastroparesis. The NIH describes it this way:

Gastroparesis, or delayed stomach emptying, is a disorder that slows or stops the movement of food from the stomach to the small intestine. Normally, the muscles of the stomach, which are controlled by the vagus nerve, contract to break up food and move it through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The GI tract is a series of hollow organs joined in a long, twisting tube from the mouth to the anus. The movement of muscles in the GI tract, along with the release of hormones and enzymes, allows for the digestion of food. Gastroparesis can occur when the vagus nerve is damaged by illness or injury and the stomach muscles stop working normally. Food then moves slowly from the stomach to the small intestine or stops moving altogether … It can cause weight loss or weight gain … Constant hunger/food craving might be from the poor absorption of nutrients caused by chronic slowed digestion.1

The vagus nerve (cranial nerve X) which starts in the medulla oblongata (lowest part of the brainstem), extends down through the carotid and jugular to the stomach and ends at the anus. Multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases can damage the 10th cranial nerve, thereby partially paralyzing the stomach. More women than men are afflicted with gastroparesis.2

See your doctor

This is not to say that I’ve diagnosed myself with the above condition. There can be other causes for my symptoms such as systemic yeast and food allergies. I’ll be seeing my primary care doc soon and sort it out from there.

If you have MS and are experiencing digestive problems, see your doctor.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Gastroparesis. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Published June 2012.
  2. Vagus Nerve.


  • cindic
    1 year ago

    It is as if I wrote this about myself! Thanks for posting, although years ago, it is still relevant.

  • janglesp
    2 years ago

    I have suffered with digestive issues since 1987 (21 yrs old). Hospitalized a few times because of the problems, every digestive test you can think of run dozens of times and always negative. Multiple hemorrhoid surgeries because of the problems.
    Diagnosed with MS in 2012 after consulting with a neurosurgeon who performed an ACDF on my neck and talking about new things I was experiencing. Sent to a neurologist who performed test and discovered I had MS.
    I continually suffer from everything described in the posts on and off, I have been on stool softeners and MiraLax(started when only available as prescription) for as long as I can remember, drink at least 64 ounces of water a day and enough veggies and fruit that I am almost a vegetarian.
    I go days at a time where I am hungry and can’t eat more than a couple of bites before I feel full and have upper abdominal pain.

    3 years ago

    I was dxed with gastroparesis 4 years before I was ever dxed with MS – and it was a horrific time period – Zelnorm was the only med out for it and then it went off the market. I was really upset but by that time I hadn’t realized I was better! My gastroparesis has returned in spurts over the last 13 years but not like it had been originally.
    When I was dxed with MS I started to research that and found a study had been done, I believe in the UK, in 1999 about a link between gastroparesis and MS – but nothing more.
    I truly have always believed that I already had the disease and it wasn’t a precursor but more like a symptom that couldn’t be controlled.

  • rjader
    3 years ago

    I actually started out with extreme weight loss of 20 pounds in 5 weeks, chronic vomiting, and severe pain. I finally was diagnosed with Gastroparesis. My motility specialist sent me to a neurologist and a full year later I was diagnosed with RRMS. So, I got the GP diagnosis first THEN with RRMS a year later. I’ve coped with both now for 2-3 years. It’s a journey not for the faint of heart.

  • saddison
    3 years ago

    I could write a book on this subject, but it would be one that no one would want to read. 🙂 Suffice it to say, I understand. I have neurogenic bowel and bladder and gastroparesis due to MS-lots of brain stem lesions. Recently I have started experiencing the MS “hug”. After eating a small meal, I can feel so full that it feels like my ‘ribs would shatter’ as you described. MS is the condition that just keeps on giving. We make the best of life that we can, and do all we can to keep our spirits strong.

  • Lowdramamama
    4 years ago

    Was DX’d in 1985, age 25, w/ RRMS. DX’d 2010 w/SPMS. I’m still walking, but not for very long or very far!
    Have always LOVED milk, tomato soup, Italian food, etc… Very suddenly one evening after some Campbell’s tomato soup – I experienced excruciating upper digestive pain – and had reflux (1st time ever) that was surely 100% car battery acid!
    And these are REALLY weird – When swallowing, I sometimes feel that my throat is constricting!!! I also experience on occasion a “burning” sensation in the roof of my mouth.
    I am now drinking LACTOSE FREE milk, avoiding anything & everything that “could be” acidic – which has made a positive difference.
    I’ve not even considered MS as the culprit, so I am super thankful for this article!
    And…has anyone out there exper’d any thing like this?

  • D
    4 years ago

    I was diagnosed with gastroparesis in 2004 along with GERD. By 2005 I had a total colectomy, but by the grace of God I did not need to have a bag. Now my small intestine is going very slow. I also have SIBO that won’t be treated with antibiotics. This does not leave me many choices except to treat what guts I have left with the proverbial kid gloves.

  • Kayro
    4 years ago

    Wow,I was released from the Hosp 2 weeks ago thinking my Ulcerative Colitis was flaring and was having a bad reaction to the Flagyl with a stiff neck and severe headache. I also have Crohn’s. They admitted me, did a CT Scan, Spinal Tap and a MRI. Not sure why they did this, but started treating me for Meningitis. I have been in the hospital 2 times last year and 3 times this year with my GI problems. We couldn’t understand why my symptoms were there but no flareup. The MRI shows that my MS has progressed rapidly since Aug 2015’s MRI. Thank God for MS or I was facing a Colonectomy!!!! Now I have a true team of great Doctors that communicate with each other to help me get to feeling better.
    So glad I stumbled across this article!

  • Kim Dolce moderator author
    4 years ago

    Hi Kayro, I hope you’ll get to feeling better soon, you’ve been through some rough stuff! It’s great that your doctors were thorough and didn’t just commence doing a “cut and paste” with your colon. Our over-excitable MS nerves can cause such mischief. I hope the MS progression slows and you can reach a plateau of relative stability. Thanks so much for sharing your story!

  • melissa826
    4 years ago

    your fourth paragraph sounds as though it came right from my mouth. I basically suffer the exact symptoms. It’s so hard when you have to basically diagnose yourself because doctors don’t share info with each other about you and no one really seems to want to help you solve the problem. thanks for your post!

  • Ann osterberg
    4 years ago

    This sounds exactly like me . I was sick with gastro issues for several years . All testing came back negative . Finally after a gastric emptying study I was diagnosed with gastropresis. However nothing helped me . The symptoms would come and go . I was told that gastropresis is dominate with diabetes. However I am not diabetic , so there was no explanation for my diagnosis . After suffering with this for several years other symptoms began to appear and worsen . Finally in March 2015 I was diagnosed with ms . Finally the pieces began to fit .

  • Meagan Heidelberg moderator
    4 years ago

    Ann, thank you so much for being a member of our community. It must have been an exhausting time for you, but I’m thankful that you finally got answers with your diagnosis instead of constantly wondering what is going on with you. I am sorry to hear that you have MS, but please know you are not alone. We, and our community, are here to help and talk to you!

    Meagan, Team Member

  • Octavian
    4 years ago

    In trying to find the solution to a very bad digestive system for several years in an untold number of places, I came across a meta-analysis of MS studies on same. The recommendation was peppermint oil! I added it to my regular routine and it is working! My regular routine which only about half worked was original Fiber One and milk of magnesia (from MD Anderson Cancer Center), senna (from a friend who is a hospice nurse), digestive enzymes and probiotics (me).

  • Meagan Heidelberg moderator
    4 years ago

    Thank you so much for sharing, Octavian! That is very interesting to know. Thank you for being a part of our community,

    Meagan, Team Member

  • April101
    4 years ago

    My digestion issue is constipation. I used to think it normal that I could only evacuate my bowels every third day and not very effectively. I discovered this year that Pork has been the cause of my problem. No pork equals no constipation. Now I force myself to drink Lots of water and I ad extra fiber. Apple Cider Vinegar is a staple in my refrigerator.

  • Scott
    4 years ago

    last 6 months same symptoms, softner nightly and lots of daily water. Hoping every 3 days is alright.

  • jekt074
    4 years ago

    I am so glad I read this article. I have all of those same digestive problems. They started about 2 years ago, and I was diagnosed with MS only 4 years ago. My doctor said it is IBS, and I should be taking probiotics. I am doing that, but it is not helping at all. In fact, I am considering not taking them for the month of October and seeing how I feel. MS was the last thing on my mind when I questioned what was going on.

  • Linda
    4 years ago

    Hi Kim, Great article. You’re description is spot on and helps me understand one of the many systems of MS.

  • Dena
    4 years ago

    I can’t believe I stumbled on this article through facebook. I have been going through hell since the beginning of the year, and what you have described is exactly what I have been experiencing. Never did I think it would be my MS. I have had every test under the sun and nothing has shown up to explain why I have felt this way. I am lost for words. Thank you so much for posting this article.

  • melissa826
    4 years ago

    this is me as well. I attribute almost everything to my ms…but never this. my meds cause it? maybe. bad pipes in the house? sure. but my ms? never crossed my mind. so glad I found this on Facebook as well!!

  • Ann osterberg
    4 years ago

    Same here . The article fit me to a tee

  • Kelly McNamara moderator
    4 years ago

    Hi Dena. Very sorry to hear your experiencing this as well. Glad you were able to stumble onto this article though. Wishing you the best. Kelly, Team Member

  • KarenLoftus
    4 years ago

    Diabetics also get this (I don’t have diabetes). I’ve had this as major symptom from onset, before dx. It’s usually under ‘stomach or bowel’ problems. It’s listed under sx on most MS sites. This must be an old blog or Google didn’t understand your question. seems to share posts only from regular or well known contributors. They should start looking at others to share, we all have something to say, just not as often as others.

  • Meg
    4 years ago

    I have had MS for more than 40 years and gastroparesis for the last 8. The worst part was when I had no idea what was going on and neither my primary doc nor neurologist had a clue. Once you know the problem you can learn how to manage it by avoiding certain foods, certain drugs, etc. Sometimes at it’s worst I have to stop eating solid food for a couple of days. At best, small meals, eaten slowly. Good thing we’re so adaptable! MS gives us so many chances to adapt!

  • Poll