Stomach ulcers, which are also known as gastric ulcers, are painful sores in the stomach lining. Stomach ulcers are a type of peptic ulcer disease. Peptic ulcers are any ulcers that affect both the stomach and small intestines. Stomach ulcers occur when the thick layer of mucus that protects the stomach from digestive juices is reduced. This allows the digestive acids to eat away at the tissues that line the stomach, causing an ulcer. Stomach ulcers may be easily cured, but they can become severe without proper treatment. Here is everything you need to know about the symptoms of a stomach ulcer.
The classic symptom of a stomach ulcer is indigestion, also called dyspepsia. Indigestion causes pain or discomfort in the stomach area. This symptom can often be mistaken for heartburn, which can occur at the same time. Heartburn can be caused by acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). It occurs slightly higher up from the stomach and is felt in the lower part of the chest. It is worth noting that not all stomach ulcers cause indigestion.
Stomach ulcer symptoms are a bit more distinct than heartburn, but symptoms can still be vague. An ulcer tends to produce a burning or dull pain in the stomach area. This pain is sometimes described as a "biting" or "gnawing" pain. Some people may describe a hungry sensation.
Other symptoms include:
- weight loss
- nausea and vomiting
- pain may be relieved by eating, drinking, or taking antacids
Some stomach ulcers go unnoticed and show no typical indigestion-type pains. These ulcers are less common and tend to be diagnosed after the ulcer has started bleeding. Some ulcers can cause a hole in the stomach wall. This is known as perforation and is a serious condition. Normally, stomach ulcer symptoms often change over time and can be difficult to spot.
How is stomach ulcer diagnosed?
Diagnosis and treatment will greatly depend on the symptoms and the severity of the ulcer. In order to diagnose a stomach ulcer, your doctor will review your medical history along with your symptoms and any medications you’re taking.
To rule out H. pylori infection, a blood, stool, or breath test may be ordered. With a breath test, you’ll be instructed to drink a clear liquid and breathe into a bag, which is then sealed. If H. pylori is present, the breath sample will contain higher-than-normal levels of carbon dioxide.
Other tests and procedures used to diagnose stomach ulcers include:
- Barium swallow: You drink a thick white liquid (barium) that coats your upper gastrointestinal tract and helps the doctor see your stomach and small intestine on X-rays.
- Endoscopy (EGD): A thin, lighted tube is inserted through your mouth and into the stomach and the first part of the small intestine. This test is used to look for ulcers, bleeding, and any tissue that looks abnormal.
- Endoscopic biopsy: A piece of stomach tissue is removed so it can be analyzed in a lab.
If the doctor thinks there is a stomach ulcer, they may try to remove the cause by:
- changing the type of painkiller if the cause is thought to be NSAIDs
- trying the "test-and-treat" approach if the cause is thought to be H. pylori bacteria
Once the cause has been removed, the symptoms of stomach ulcers can be treated by protecting the ulcer from acid while it heals. Drugs a doctor could prescribe include:
- proton pump inhibitors (PPI) that block acid-producing cells
- H2-receptor antagonists, which prevent the stomach from producing excess acid
- drugs that protect the stomach lining, such as Pepto-Bismol, available to purchase online.
No particular diet is helpful for people with peptic ulcers. At one point, a bland diet and avoidance of spicy or greasy foods will be recommended. We now know diet has little effect on ulcers. In some people, however, certain foods seem to aggravate stomach ulcer symptoms. Keep a food diary with your intake and the resulting symptoms and avoid eating any foods that aggravate symptoms.