Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors (GISTs) Clinical Presentation

Updated: May 24, 2022
  • Author: Michael A Choti, MD, MBA, FACS; Chief Editor: N Joseph Espat, MD, MS, FACS  more...
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Many gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) are discovered incidentally during endoscopic or surgical procedures. In Japan, mass screening for gastric adenocarcinoma with upper endoscopy has led to an increase in incidental findings of asymptomatic GISTs.

Other GISTs are detected on radiologic studies performed to investigate protean manifestations of GI tract disease or procedures performed to treat an emergent condition such as hemorrhage or obstruction. In a population-based study, the median tumor size of GISTs that were detected as incidental findings was 2.7 cm, versus 8.9 cm for those found on the basis of symptoms. [31]

GISTs may produce symptoms secondary to hemorrhage or obstruction. Upper GI bleeding is the most common clinical manifestation of GISTs, manifesting as hematemesis or melena in 40-65% of patients. Bleeding occurs because of pressure necrosis and ulceration of the overlying mucosa with resultant hemorrhage from disrupted vessels. Patients who have experienced significant blood loss may report malaise, fatigue, or exertional dyspnea.

Obstruction can result from intraluminal growth of an endophytic tumor or from luminal compression from an exophytic lesion. The obstructive symptoms can be site-specific (eg, dysphagia with an esophageal GIST, constipation with a colorectal GIST, obstructive jaundice with a duodenal tumor). Other symptoms are generally associated with an enlarging abdominal mass and may include the following:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Anorexia
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Epigastric fullness
  • Early satiety

Physical Examination

Physical examination rarely demonstrates any significant findings. In some cases, examination may identify a palpable mass in the abdomen. Palpable masses are typically detected in patients with extraluminal tumor growth.

Other patients may present with nonspecific physical findings associated with GI blood loss, bowel obstruction, or bowel perforation and abscess formation.

Patients with significant GI bleeding may present with abnormal vital signs or overt shock. In others, fecal occult blood testing may be positive.

Physical findings associated with bowel obstruction can include a distended, tender abdomen. Duodenal obstruction involving the ampulla may be associated with jaundice and, rarely, even a distended palpable gallbladder.

If perforation has occurred, focal or widespread signs of peritonitis are present.