Peptic Ulcer Disease: Causes
- Written by Los Angeles Colonoscopy
In general, the stomach lining is a remarkably resilient membrane that protects the wall of stomach while completing its primary of function of helping with digestion. It allows gastric juices as toxic as car battery acid to begin the digestion process.
Peptic ulcer disease occurs when stomach acid penetrates the stomach and/or duodenal lining and causes sores or erosions that may bleed, lead to anemia and/or cause abdominal pain.
An estimated four million Americans have peptic ulcer disease.
When a type of bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infects your stomach lining by living in or on it, it can cause an ulcer, or sore, in the stomach or duodenum, the first part of the small intestine. This ulcer can cause pain or bleeding.
Untreated, the ulcer can literally eat a hole in the stomach lining, requiring surgery. Chronic inflammation from an ulcer can cause swelling and scarring. Over time, this scarring may close (obstruct) the outlet of the stomach, preventing the passage of food and causing vomiting and weight loss. In severe cases, ulcer complications can lead to death.
The second most common cause of ulcers is the use of pain medications called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which include aspirin and ibuprofen. People often take NSAIDs to reduce pain and inflammation, often for arthritis. Frequent or longtime use of NSAIDs, especially among older persons, however, can increase a person’s risk of ulcer.
What are the Symptoms of Peptic Ulcer Disease?
The most common symptom of an ulcer is a burning pain in the stomach, between your breastbone and your belly button. You’ll often feel this pain when your stomach is empty-between meals generally-but it can occur at any time. Sometimes this pain will wake you in the middle of the night. The pain will last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.
While not as common as stomach pain, other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, blood in the stool, or loss of appetite. Bleeding may be the first and only symptom of an ulcer. When an ulcer bleeds and continues to bleed without treatment, a person may become anemic and weak.
NSAID-induced ulcers are also common and may cause pain, anemia, or bleeding.
What Should I Do if I Have Symptoms of Peptic Ulcer Disease?
Call your doctor and schedule an appointment as soon as possible. Your doctor may give you one of several tests to determine if you are infected with
H. pylori, one being a simple blood test. In this case, your doctor will send your blood sample to a lab to be tested for evidence of antibodies to the bacteria. Another test for H. pylori is a breath test that requires you to drink a liquid, after which, about one hour later, you breathe into a container.
Yet another test for ulcers or other causes of your symptoms involves the use of upper endoscopy to detect inflammation or ulcers. The doctor can also take small samples from your stomach lining to be tested for the presence of H. pylori. Usually, you will be sedated during this procedure.
An alternative to endoscopy is an X-ray test, where you are given a chalk-like tasting liquid to drink, after which X-rays are taken to show the outline of your digestive track. This test is called an Upper GI Series.
You’re at risk for NSAID-induced ulcers if you:
- Are age 60 or older (although ulcers from NSAIDs can occur at any age)
- Experience certain side effects after taking NSAIDs, such as upset stomach and heartburn
- Have had past experiences with ulcers and internal bleeding
What is the Treatment for Peptic Ulcer Disease?
You will only need surgery if an ulcer fails to heal, you have complications, or a perforation or obstruction in the stomach develops. If you have surgery, the surgeon may remove the ulcer altogether, or "oversew" it with tissue taken from another part of the intestine. Other options include tying off the bleeding artery or cutting off the nerve supply to the base of the stomach.
What Can We Expect in the Future?
Eventually, we will understand how H. pylori is spread and how to prevent this infection. Meanwhile, the good news is that treatment programs are available to eliminate the infection and prevent duodenal ulcer recurrence.
Since the source of H. pylori infection is not yet known, no definitive recommendations have been made. However, it is always wise to wash your hands thoroughly, eat food that has been properly prepared, and drink water from a clean, safe source. If you have had ulcers in the past, you should be tested for H. pylori infection.
You can reduce your risk of NSAID-induced ulcers by:
- Trying a different NSAID
- Reducing the dose and frequency
- Following your doctor’s treatment plan to protect your stomach duodenum
- Substituting another pain-relief medication such as acetaminophen, after consulting with your doctor