Gastric Ulcers (Peptic Ulcer Disease)

The term “gastric ulcer” also known as Peptic Ulcer Disease, refers to an ulcer of the stomach. Most stomach ulcers are caused by acid. Here are facts about stomach ulcers and  what you can do to treat or prevent painful stomach ulcers from occurring.

WHAT ARE GASTRIC ULCERS?

The word “ulcer” really means “sore” or “wound.” “Gastric” refers to the location of the sore: in the stomach. Thus, a gastric ulcer is a sore that occurs inside the stomach. Usually, these ulcers penetrate the lining of the stomach and cause pain with or without bleeding.

The typical cause of a gastric ulcer is acid, which explains why stomach ulcers often are called “peptic ulcers.” However, peptic ulcers can occur in the small intestine as well as the stomach.

WHAT CAUSES GASTRIC ULCERS?

The body produces strong acids within the stomach to help digest foods. When these acids erode the lining of the stomach, a gastric ulcer results.

The most common cause of a gastric ulcer is an infection by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (“H. pylori”). You can become infected with H. pylori by eating food or drinking water infected with the bacteria.

Frequent use of aspirin, ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) also can cause gastric ulcers. NSAIDs can interfere with the stomach’s ability to protect itself from the effects of digestive acids, which can cause an ulcer to form.

Contrary to popular belief, stress and spicy foods do not cause ulcers.

GASTRIC ULCER SYMPTOMS

People can live for years with stomach ulcers and never experience a symptom aside from mild pain in the upper abdominal area. That makes ulcers tricky to detect. In general, if you have any of the following symptoms you should make an appointment with your doctor for a check-up:

  • Intense pain in the upper-left abdomen, especially after eating
  • Stomach pain that improves when you take an antacid
  • Stomach pain with nausea and/or vomiting
  • Stool that is sticky and jet-black (sometimes compared to roofing tar)
  • Stool accompanied by a large quantity of dark red blood in the toilet bowl
  • Blood-red vomit
  • Vomit that looks like coffee grounds in color and consistency

If you experience any of these symptoms along with fainting, pale complexion or shortness of breath, you should seek emergency medical treatment. Usually bleeding from an ulcer occurs slowly and over time, but occasionally it can occur rapidly. Rapid blood loss from an ulcer is considered a medical emergency.

TREATMENT OF GASTRIC ULCERS

If your health care provider suspects you have a gastric ulcer, he or she may perform several tests to obtain a diagnosis. These tests may include blood tests for the H. pylori bacterium, as well as an upper endoscopy procedure. In this procedure, a thin, flexible scope is inserted down through your esophagus and into your stomach to literally look for ulcers. You will be sedated with medications during this procedure so you don’t experience much, if any, discomfort.

Once gastric ulcers have been diagnosed, the treatment depends on the cause.

  • Ulcers due to H. pylori usually are treated with antibiotics and antacid medications.
  • Ulcers created from the use of NSAIDs often are treated by simply discontinuing the use of these medications until the ulcers have healed.
  • Ulcers caused by stomach acid usually are treated with medications to decrease the amount of acid produced by the body.

Drinking milk and/or taking over-the-counter antacids may soothe the pain of gastric ulcers, but they will not heal the ulcers themselves. Only medical interventions can heal gastric ulcers.

GASTRIC ULCER PREVENTION

Because researchers don’t know exactly why some people get gastric ulcers while others do not, it’s impossible to completely eliminate your risk of developing a stomach ulcer at some point in your life. That said, some lifestyle changes can help reduce your risk of getting a gastric ulcer:

  • Quit smoking
  • Reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption
  • Avoid overusing NSAIDs

It’s worth noting that you do not need to eat any special diet to treat or avoid getting a stomach ulcer. Spicy foods may irritate an existing ulcer, but research does not show any link between diet and ulcer formation.