For tens of thousands of people across the world, stomach ulcers cause many years of pain and discomfort, especially in cases where those stomach issues go undiagnosed for an extended period of time.
But for those people who catch it early, it’s relatively simple to get rid of stomach ulcers simply by regulating the levels of stomach acid present. This, we’ve learned, isn’t that difficult to do.
Peptic ulcers can be caused by a bad diet as well as other factors connected to an unhealthy lifestyle. There are two types of peptic ulcers: gastric ulcers and duodenal ulcers. The former develops on the lining of the stomach, and the latter forms in the upper section of the small intestine. No matter which ulcer a person is diagnosed with, they need to get it dealt with before it grows bigger.
Causes of Ulcers
There are many different things that can lead to a stomach ulcer, as mentioned, many of which are related to lifestyle. A well-known bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H pylori) is one main cause, but taking too many NSAID drugs like aspirin can also be problematic. However, things like a diet with too many acidic foods or sugars can also be a factor, as are smoking and too much caffeine. That said, many doctors don’t recognize a correlation between diet and stomach ulcers.
While many people feel no issues at all from stomach ulcers, many patients experience abdominal pain, nausea, a loss of appetite and even weight loss. In the most serious of cases, some people will also experience bleeding in the stomach or duodenum, which will often be evident in stool samples. However, treatment of a peptic ulcer very much depends on the cause of the ulcer and can vary greatly.
Pain from Ulcers
Even though many patients don’t report feeling any pain associated with a stomach ulcer, many people will feel pain in the upper middle part of the abdomen, just above the belly button and below the breastbone. The pain has been described as a burning sensation and can go through to the patient’s back. It often strikes a few hours after a meal when the stomach is empty and is reportedly worse at night and first thing in the morning.
Causes of Ulcers
When a person eats, the stomach produces hydrochloric acid and an enzyme called pepsin to digest the food. While most of the food is digested in the stomach, what’s left then moves to the duodenum where more digestions takes place. Peptic ulcers strike when the acid in the stomach overcomes the defense mechanisms of the gastrointestinal tract. As a result, the mucosal wall starts to erode.
Doctors have been aware for many years that ulcers often affect people who suffer from excessive worry and stress. The condition called “generalized anxiety disorder” has been linked in numerous studies with stomach ulcers, while a rare condition called Zollinger-Ellison syndrome causes peptic ulcers as well as tumors in the pancreas and duodenum. One’s first action for dealing with stomach issues is contacting their family doctor who will often refer them to a gastroenterologist, a specialist in disorders of the stomach.
Time is Right
If and when someone feels that burning sensation in their upper stomach, especially if it is relieved by taking antacids, it’s probably time to call the doctor to make an appointment. Antacids won’t clear an ulcer up, but instead will simply deal with some of the annoying symptoms. If a person vomits blood though, it’s time to pay a visit to the emergency room as a burst stomach ulcer is very dangerous and can even be life-threatening.
There are two main options available to doctors trying to ascertain whether or not a patient has a peptic ulcer. The first is called a UGI or Upper GI Series, which is a type of X-ray that is taken after a patient drinks a chalky liquid containing barium. This gives medical professionals the chance to see what’s going on inside a person’s digestive tract. The second type of test that can be ordered is called an endoscopy.
A Closer Look
Doctors who want to take a close, real-time look at a patients stomach will order an endoscopy. An endoscopy uses a thin, flexible tube with a tiny camera at the end. After a sedative is given, the camera is passed through the mouth into the stomach so that the lining of the stomach can be viewed. Samples of that tissue are also taken and are then viewed under a microscope.
H Pylori Testing
As it could be a specific bacteria which has caused the stomach ulcer, many doctors will call for an H Pylori test to see if that is the cause of the ulcer. In the first instance, a blood test will be ordered to see if the bacteria is present. There is also a breath test which can be performed which measures carbon dioxide in the breath of a patient who consumes a special liquid. This test is more accurate than a blood test but is more complex to perform. The final option available is a tissue test where tissue from the stomach is examined during an endoscopy to ascertain whether the bacteria is present.
There are preventative measures a person can adopt to avoid the onset of a stomach ulcer. It is recommended that people who are susceptible avoid smoking, coffee and alcohol as these habits increase the production of stomach acid and weaken the mucosal barrier of the GI tract. Avoiding aspirin and NSAIDs is also a good idea, and over-the-counter antacid can help to relieve the burning sensation in the short term.
While many theories have been forthcoming over the years, there is no proof that diet affects a stomach ulcer in any significant way. Some doctors recommend a bland diet with no spicy food, while others recommend a dairy diet, but neither of these have proved to be effective conclusively. That said, some foods will aggravate some people in different ways than others, so keeping a food diary can be a good idea.
There are several different types of medication that a person can take to deal with peptic ulcers. Most over-the-counter medications contain aluminum hydroxide combined with magnesium or calcium. Some examples of these would be Maalox, Tums, and Rolaids. But those won’t help some, especially those with a growing ulcer or with an ulcer that has reached an advanced stage. Furthermore, many patients suffer from diarrhea with these medications.
Histamine Blockers are prescription medication that some people favor for treating their peptic ulcer. Histamine blockers, also known as H2 blockers, include cimetidine (Tagamet), ranitidine (Zantac), famotidine (Pepcid), and nizatidine (Axid). They work by blocking histamine which is a chemical known to promote acid production in the stomach. However, the most effective and most controversial of drugs for stomach ulcers are called PPIs, or proton pump inhibitors.
Proton Pump Inhibitors
A group of drugs that many doctors prescribe to patients are called a PPIs. They work by cutting off the acid “pumps” inside the stomach, essentially stopping the acid before it is produced. However, many doctors have forgotten the vital role that acid plays in the stomach, and that’s not to mention effects later down the line. The FDA even wants a warning on these medications, which include, omeprazole (Prilosec, Prilosec OTC, Zegerid), lansoprazole (Prevacid, Prevacid 24-Hour), rabeprazole (Aciphex), and pantoprazole (Protonix), dexlansoprazole (Dexilant, Kapidex), and esomeprazole (Nexium).
Surgery for Ulcers
There are a few different types of surgery for a peptic ulcer which can be carried out if a patient is unable to take medication or if that medication hasn’t worked. A vagotomy is the most common procedure, whereby the vagus nerve, which sends messages from the brain to the stomach, can reduce acid secretion. However, this can also cause problems in other functions of the stomach, so many surgeons opt for what’s called an antrectomy. This operation involves removing the lower part of the stomach, where all the stomach acid is produced.
Most people who suffer from a peptic ulcer in their lifetime will make a full recovery, while very few cases re-occur. While relief is often felt immediately, it can take a few weeks for the lining of the intestine or stomach to heal. Ulcers are seldom life-threatening, however, if the ulcer fails to heal there could be something more serious going on. Cancer screening is recommended in some cases, as well as plenty of follow-ups with your doctor.
Occasionally, a stomach ulcer will bleed due to the blood vessel supplying the area of the ulcer being overly damaged by stomach acid. Slow bleeding often causes a low blood count for anemia, with the patient left feeling tired and weak. Fast bleeding often includes vomiting blood, and this is a situation which needs to be dealt with immediately.
For people who suffer from acid reflux and indigestion on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to stop popping the tums and opting for that quick-fix relief. If the condition persists, it’s time to seek a doctor and tell them about your situation. It may call for a round of antibiotics or other medication, which may prove to be life-saving.
In many cases simply adjusting one’s lifestyle will be enough to ward off an impending peptic stomach ulcer. Overly stressed people are well-advised to learn how to manage their lives and not to get a bout of stomach acid every time there’s a mini-crisis. For others, regular exercise and a healthy diet without too much caffeine or alcohol will do the trick. Always seek professional medical advice when in doubt.