Background: Systemic sclerosis (SSc) is an autoimmune disease characterized by fibrosis and collagen deposits. Gastrointestinal symptoms of SSc, including abdominal pain, bloating and discomfort, are common but diffuse and their pathophysiology remains obscure.
Aim: To investigate the pathophysiology of abdominal pain and discomfort in individuals with SSc.
Methods: A total of 15 individuals with SSc (13 women, median age 58 years), all suffering from diffuse abdominal symptoms, and 17 healthy volunteers (12 women, median age 52 years) were evaluated with the Motility Tracking System, MTS-1, measuring gastric emptying (GE) and velocity through the small intestine. SSc patients were also examined for bacterial overgrowth using the hydrogen breath test and with radiopaque markers to determine the total gastrointestinal transit time (GITT).
Results: Assessed with the MTS-1, the velocity through the proximal small intestine was significantly reduced in SSc patients (median 0.525 m/h, range 0.11-1.15) when compared to healthy subjects (median 0.91 m/h, range 0.51-1.74) (p = 0.02). Prolonged GE was found in 4 SSc patients (27%) but in none of the healthy volunteers (p = 0.04). Only 3 SSc patients (21%) had positive breath tests for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. GITT was >3 days in 8 patients (53%). Slow small intestinal transit was associated with a prolonged GITT (p < 0.05).
Conclusion: Velocity through the small intestine is significantly reduced in SSc patients with diffuse abdominal symptoms.