A stomach ulcer also known as peptic ulcers is an actual break / sore on the protective lining of your digestive tract. The digestive tract consists of the stomach, oesophagus, duodenum and intestines. Ulcers on the stomach are known as gastric ulcers, ulcers on the duodenum are known as duodenal ulcers and ulcers on the oesophagus are known as oesophageal ulcers. Stomach ulcers can be a serious medical condition but with proper treatment can be controlled and in most cases healed.
What causes stomach ulcers?
Your stomach produces acid to help with the digestion of food. Ulcers occur when the acid break the defences and eat away at the lining of the stomach and duodenum.
The most common cause of developing an ulcer is infection with a type of bacteria called Helicobacter Pylori (H.pylori) that lives on the lining of the stomach and the duodenum. In some people H.pylori acts as an irritant to the lining of the stomach, causing inflammation of the stomach (known as gastritis). Most people tend to catch H.pylori during childhood and most won’t even know they have it. It is not fully understood why some people are more sensitive to the effects of H.pylori than others.
The use of NSAIDs, which are commonly used drugs such as ibuprofen and aspirin could also put you more at risk of a stomach ulcer, especially if taken for a long time or at high doses. If you take these drugs regularly you should consult your doctor to ask how you can minimize the effects to your stomach.
Other factors that may play a role in the formations of ulcers are smoking and diet, however there is little evidence to confirm this. However, these factors can make the symptoms worse.
What are the symptoms of a stomach ulcer?
Symptoms of ulcers can vary in one person to another and on where the ulcer is located but the most common symptoms of an ulcer is abdominal pain or discomfort. Typically, the pain is a burning or gnawing pain and can last a few minutes to a few hours.
Other possible symptoms include:
Symptoms do not have to be present all the time. In fact, most people’s symptoms come and go even without the use of any medication. If the ulcer is situated in the duodenal the pain tends to come on a few hours after eating and tends to go away again once you have eaten. If the ulcer is in the stomach you may find the pain comes on when you eat. If the ulcer is in the oesophagus you may have trouble swallowing.
If you think you have a stomach ulcer then you should see your doctor. If you experience sudden sharp pain in your stomach that gets steadily worse, vomit blood or pass dark stick stools then you should seek urgent medical help.
Are stomach ulcers a common infection?
In Britain men are more prone to suffer than women. You are also more likely to get an ulcer if you are aged over 60.
How is a stomach ulcer diagnosed?
Your doctor may be able to diagnose your ulcer from your symptoms alone, however, your doctor will want to find out the type and the cause. Your doctor will ask if you are regularly taking NSAIDs and they will usually carry out a test to look for the presence of H.pylori. This can be a breath test, blood test or a stool sample test. You should then be tested again after treatment to check that H.pylori has been eradicated. We sell a test on this website which can aid in diagnosis, click here for information.
To confirm the diagnosis, you may need to have an endoscopy. An endoscopy involves a thin tube with a camera on it being passed down your throat and into your stomach enabling the doctor to see the stomach and duodenum lining. This test will usually be done on an out-patients basis at your local hospital.
How is a stomach ulcer treated?
The treatment for your stomach ulcer will depend on what is causing it. If your ulcer is caused by H.pylori, you will be given a course of antibiotics and a drug to reduce the amount of acid produced by the stomach, these help prevent further damage and allow your ulcer chance to heal. These drugs are called proton pump inhibitors (PPI). PPI’s or H2 receptor antagonists, ranitidine is the most widely used.
Almost all H.pylori infections can be eradicated in a month or 2 if the course of treatment is completed.
Your doctor will usually advise you to avoid alcohol and eat a healthy diet, avoiding foods that cause you indigestion as this can make the ulcer symptoms worse. All the prescribed treatments can take hours before they work so your doctor might suggest you take antacids such as milk of magnesia (available from your pharmacy) to neutralize the stomach acids and offer short term relief.
If your ulcer has been caused due to the use of NSAID’s your doctor will recommend you stop taking them and try an alternative pain killer. You will also be prescribed PPIs or H2’s to reduce acid production.
How can H-Pylori and stomach ulcers affect me in the future?
Stomach ulcers, like mouth ulcers tend to come and go, and without treatment recurrence is quite common. If H.pylori infection is successfully treated the chances of the infection coming back are slim.
If the ulcer is not treated the ulcer may continue to wear away into any underlying arteries or veins causing them to bleed, this bleeding can be slow or fast. The symptoms of this are vomiting of blood or if the bleeding is less severe it can result in dark black stools. If the ulcer becomes very deep, it can completely penetrate the thickness of the stomach wall. This is known as a perforated ulcer and can cause severe sudden pain and collapse. This occurs when acidic contents of the stomach are leaked out into the abdomen. Both conditions need urgent medical attention, if you notice any of these symptoms contact your doctor immediately.
Some ulcers can become malignant, therefore if ulcers are present it is best to have them thoroughly investigated.