Many disorders can affect the digestive system. Some are physiological, while others are physical conditions with a strong psychological component. Rumination syndrome is one of the latter. People with this condition unintentionally regurgitate undigested food. They then either rechew it and swallow, or spit it out. Luckily, this rare condition is fully treatable.
In rumination syndrome, regurgitation is not intentional. It typically occurs within ten minutes to one hour of eating, at which point the previously swallowed food comes back up into the mouth. Individuals with rumination syndrome typically report that food comes up in the same state it went down; that is, undigested and without any vomit-like taste.
In people with rumination syndrome, abdominal pain sometimes occurs after eating. It often comes with a feeling of fullness and in some cases, individuals also experience nausea after eating. After regurgitating food, these symptoms usually go away within minutes, only returning after another meal.
Constant regurgitation of food, whether from rumination syndrome or other disorders such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can lead to halitosis or bad breath. Bacteria from food that sits in the mouth after regurgitation, combined with stomach acids that work their way up through the esophagus, can cause this symptom. By brushing teeth and flossing frequently, people with rumination syndrome may be able to combat halitosis.
On top of abdominal discomfort and halitosis, people with rumination syndrome might experience weight loss, malnutrition, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances. These symptoms tend to appear in more advanced cases and primarily affect those who prefer to spit out regurgitated food rather than re-chew and swallow it.
The exact cause of rumination syndrome remains unknown but there are theories about it. Some physicians and researchers suspect this disorder is strongly associated with emotional stress, depression, and other psychiatric conditions. Others have found that it can occur after an individual endures a physical injury or viral illness that affects the abdomen. Regardless of the initial cause, most people continue to experience their food coming back up even after their initial issues resolve.
There isn't much information available about rumination syndrome and because the regurgitation is often confused with vomiting or acid reflux, it's not uncommon for this condition to be misdiagnosed. A person with rumination syndrome might be misdiagnosed with GERD, gastroparesis, or cyclic vomiting syndrome, in which individuals experience nausea and vomiting at regular intervals.
Triggers for rumination syndrome include illness and injury, but the condition is behavioral in nature. Typically, once regurgitation begins, the individual unconsciously associates it with feelings of physical relief and after some time, it becomes a learned behavior. The sooner treatment begins, the more likely it is that recovery will be quick and the habit will not take root.
People seeking help for symptoms of rumination syndrome typically must undergo a clinical evaluation from a licensed physician. To receive a diagnosis, they need to meet three criteria:
Most individuals with rumination syndrome respond well to behavioral therapies. Treatment can include habit reversal and relaxation strategies, as well as advanced techniques, such as biofeedback. Several practitioners can provide therapy, including psychologists, nurses, and gastroenterologists. In some cases, patients who don't respond to these therapies require prescription medication.
Although data on rumination syndrome is limited, it was once thought to be incredibly rare. However, with advances in medicine and diagnostic technology, physicians are finding it simpler to rule out other conditions, and diagnoses have become more common. Greater awareness of this condition among physicians may have also contributed to this increase in diagnoses.
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