When You Can't Stop Throwing Up

Those who suffer from cyclic vomiting syndrome face both agony and skepticism.

ByABC News
November 5, 2008, 2:47 PM

Nov. 20, 2008— -- For most people, an unsettled stomach is a passing inconvenience; at its worst, a vomiting episode is at least followed by relief.

But for those who suffer from a seemingly rare chronic vomiting illness, no amount of throwing up can stop the nausea.

Such is the case with Natalie Robertson of Chico, Calif. One of the most distinct memories Robertson has about her first week as a freshman at Chico State University was enduring daylong episodes of uncontrollable vomiting.

"She would throw up in the bushes on the way to class," said Lynne Bussey, Robertson's mother. "Sometimes she would have to run out the door in the middle of class."

Initially, some thought Robertson, who was 18 at the time, was hung over from a night of heavy drinking. Others believed she was bulimic. And although Robertson claimed her vomiting episodes would come without warning, many did not believe her mystery illness, she said. Teachers warned Robertson that excessive absences from class put her at risk of failing.

"I've had to drop classes because [my illness] has been too overwhelming," Robertson said.

Many doctors diagnosed Robertson with the stomach flu or food poisoning, Bussey said. Yet, Robertson's symptoms persisted for two years.

"We knew something was wrong," said Bussey. "There was just a lot of guessing."

After dozens of hospital visits, Robertson was diagnosed with cyclic vomiting syndrome, or CVS, a neurological disorder characterized by a series of prolonged attacks of severe nausea and vomiting, with no apparent cause. Symptoms usually begin with severe abdominal pain or a migraine headache, followed by episodes of vomiting that can last for hours or even days.

However, once an episode is over, the sufferer inexplicably returns to normal health, often with no remnants of the disease.

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Unlike with bulimia, which is a cycle of binge eating followed by purging, those with CVS have repeated episodes of vomiting that can begin and continue on an empty stomach. Also, CVS episodes are induced by overwhelming nausea, while individuals with bulimia often vomit without feeling nauseated.