More than indigestion - stomach ulcers
Digestion is a vital process for everyone of us, yet it is also something that we tend to treat with disregard until things go seriously wrong. A touch of indigestion? A passing griping pain in the stomach? Most people reach for some over the counter medication and just get on with life without thinking too much about the causes.
Today we do all eat an extraordinary range of foods and sometimes of course certain foods can cause temporary problems. But problems in the stomach may be symptomatic of something more than simple indigestion that require specific medication or treatment.
Stomach ulcers are a case in point. The term covers ulcers in the stomach and can also be known as gastric ulcers. If you hear the term peptic ulcer, this can also cover a stomach ulcer but can also refer to ulcers in the duodenum (the early sections of the intestines).
The symptom of a stomach ulcer is often pain in the upper abdomen just below the breastbone, something that can come and go and can be eased with normal indigestion pills. It can be just a minor sensation rather than pain, or the discomfort can be enough to keep you awake at night.
You may also feel full a lot of the time, especially after a meal, and other symptoms can include indigestion or heartburn, sickness and bloating, tiredness and even anaemia.
However, some people have no symptoms at all.
If you don’t treat a stomach ulcer, it can be very dangerous. Ulcers can develop to cause rapid internal bleeding, which can be small or life-threatening, or an obstruction in the intestines. If the ulcer develops enough to perforate the wall of the stomach, then food and acid from the stomach can leak into the abdominal cavity which can create a real medical emergency.
The whole problem occurs because of the strength of the acid that is essential to help us digest our food. When we eat, the food passes down into our stomach which then mixes with this acid to help digestion and kill bacteria. It then passes into the duodenum.
Because this acid is so strong, the inside lining of our stomach produces a mucus which acts as a natural barrier against the acid. For various reasons, if this mucus isn’t defending its area properly, then the acid can get through and damage the lining of the stomach or the duodenum.
In the large majority of cases, stomach ulcers are caused by an infection which causes an inflammation in the lining of the stomach or duodenum. This disrupts the mucus barrier and the acid gets through.
It has been identified that in most cases this infection is caused by a specific bacterium called helicobacter pylori. Evidently around 25% of people in the UK are infected with this at some time or other in their lives. Often it causes no problems, but with some it can cause the inflammation that can lead to an ulcer.
Another cause however is the use of anti-inflammatory drugs which can sometimes affect the mucus barrier of the stomach. Drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen can do this, and so while these drugs are a vital and useful part of modern life, it is worth mentioning this if you visit your doctor re stomach problems.
Stomach ulcers can be confirmed with a gastroscopy when the doctor can look inside your stomach to check for inflammation. Barium studies can also be used when a substance called barium is swallowed to show up ulcers under an x-ray. There are also other tests that can be done to determine whether you have the helicobacter pylori bacterium.
The good news is that stomach ulcers can be helped to heal with specific medication to clear the helicobacter pylori bacterium. Treatments often also prevent the ulcer recurring.
Usually two antibiotics are needed to clear the helicobacter phylori plus an acid-suppressing drug is usually recommended to allow the antibiotics to work well. This combination therapy is usually for a week but longer periods of medication and other drugs may be recommended in different situations.
Surgery used to be a common treatment for stomach ulcers until the helicobacter pylori was identified. However, if the ulcer has lead to actual perforation, then surgery can still be required.
While the treatment is straightforward, the results of neglecting a stomach ulcer certainly are not. If you have any doubt at all about the causes of digestive problems or discomfort, it is recommended that medical advice is sought so that the problem can be properly diagnosed.
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