Symptoms related to abnormal gastrointestinal motility and function can occur from the moment food is swallowed to the time stool is passed into the toilet. A recent UEG survey indicated that dysphagia, heartburn, bloating, abdominal pain and changes to bowel habit are each reported by 5–15% of the general population.1 These symptoms are frequent reasons for seeking medical attention from general physicians and for referral to specialist gastroenterologists. Most patients with these symptoms do not have neoplasia, infection or inflammation on initial investigation, but rather so-called functional gastrointestinal symptoms.2,3
For patients with mild symptoms, negative tests provide reassurance and simple, symptomatic management might be all that is required (e.g. acid suppression, stool regulation). However, for those with severe symptoms that persist on therapy, ruling out life-threatening disease is not sufficient, and referral to the neurogastroenterology and motility (NGM) laboratory for physiological measurements is often indicated.
Clinical investigations aim to explain the cause of symptoms and establish a diagnosis that can guide rational treatment. Until recently, it could be argued that manometry, scintigraphy, breath tests and related tests rarely provided this information. As a result, only patients with suspected major motility disorders (e.g. achalasia, severe reflux disease or faecal incontinence) were routinely referred to the NGM laboratory for tests. Technological advances, such as high-resolution manometry (HRM), now provide objective measurements not only of motility, but also of function in terms of the movement (and digestion) of ingested material within the gastrointestinal tract. Furthermore, the ability to associate events (such as bolus retention, reflux or gas production) with symptoms provides an indication of visceral sensitivity and can identify what is causing patient complaints.
Here, I discuss frequent mistakes in clinical investigation of gastrointestinal motility and function based on a series of consensus documents published by members of the International Working Group for Disorders of Gastrointestinal Motility and Function.