Stomach Ulcer August 2009
Most of us have heard of stomach ulcers but understanding the symptoms, causes and treatments is another thing altogether.
There is some truth in these ideas because stomach ulcers are caused when the acid balance in your stomach has gone out of synch and therefore anything that affects this acid balance can lead to problems. However, by far the main cause of stomach ulcers is an infection.
To understand how the infection can cause an ulcer, it is necessary to know a bit about the role of acid in stomachs. Acid is an essential product of your stomach to aid digestion and kill bacteria. The acid also plays a part in developing the mucus lining on the stomach which stops the acid damaging it and eating through into your abdomen. If there is an alteration in the balance and the acid gets through the protective mucus lining to the stomach wall, then you may suffer from an ulcer. The word ulcer really means just an open sore, they are usually about 1 to 2cm across and look very much like large mouth ulcers.
The majority of stomach ulcers are caused by infection from helicobacter pylori. Many of us can be infected with this (evidently about half of the world’s population is infected) and it causes no problems, the bacteria just lives happily in the lining of our stomach without causing symptoms. However, in some people these bacteria affect the mucus barrier allowing the acid to get through, causing inflammation and ulcers.
Another cause of stomach ulcers can be anti-inflammatory drugs. Common medication such as aspirin and ibuprofen can affect the make-up of the mucus barrier of the stomach, again allowing the acid to get through and cause an ulcer.
There are a few other causes for stomach ulcers but these are very rare.
Sometimes, people with a stomach ulcer have no symptoms at all; however it is more usual to experience some discomfort. This can be a pain in the upper abdomen just below the breastbone. The pain usually comes an hour or two after eating, it can come and go, and it can be relieved by antacids.
If you feel you might have an ulcer, there are some easy tests your doctor can make to find out. A blood test can check whether you have antibodies for helicobacter pylori – if you have, it means you have been infected. There is also a breath test when you swallow a liquid that is broken down by helicobacter pylori. Your breath is tested and can show if you have the bacteria. There are also faecal and biopsy tests that can be undertaken.
Normally treatment for a stomach ulcer will include antibiotics to eradicate the infection. You may be given an acid suppressing drug for a time to allow the ulcer to heal and the stomach lining to repair itself.
Of course as in all medical conditions, complications can occur and these can become serious. The ulcer can go right through the wall of the stomach which then allows food and acid to leak into the abdominal cavity. This is known as a perforated ulcer, a very serious condition that usually causes severe pain and requires emergency surgery.
Generally though ulcers can be cured quite easily through medication within a few weeks. As always,though, if you have symptoms the sooner you see your doctor the better.
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