Ulcer - duodenal or gastric

Alternative names
Ulcer - peptic; Peptic ulcer; Duodenal ulcer

Definition

Ulcers are erosions in the lining of the stomach or duodenum (the first part of the small intestines). An ulcer in the stomach is called a gastric ulcer. An ulcer in the duodenum is called a duodenal ulcer. Together, ulcers of the stomach and duodenum are referred to as peptic ulcers.

Most ulcers are erosions of the first layer of the inner lining. If the hole goes all the way through, this is called a perforation of the intestinal lining. This can cause shock and is a medical emergency.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Normally, the lining of the stomach and small intestines have protection against the irritating acids produced in your stomach. For a variety of reasons, the protective mechanisms may become faulty, leading to a breakdown of the lining. This results in inflammation (gastritis) or an ulcer.

The most common cause of such damage is a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori. Most people with peptic ulcers have this organism living in their gastrointestinal (GI) tract. On the other hand, many people have this organism living in their GI tract but they don’t get an ulcer.

OTHER FACTORS can make it more likely for you to get an ulcer, including:

     
  • Using aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen  
  • Drinking alcohol excessively  
  • Smoking cigarettes and using tobacco

In addition, if you have a family history of ulcers or you are blood type 0, you are more likely to get a duodenal ulcer. There is also a rare condition called Zolliger-Ellison syndrome in which a tumor in the pancreas secretes a substance that causes ulcers throughout the stomach and duodenum.

A once popular belief was that stress causes ulcers. This is not true. Stress may make you experience more pain from an ulcer and it may make it more difficult to heal from an ulcer. But, stress does not cause an ulcer.

Symptoms

Abdominal pain is the main symptom. It may awaken you at night, occur 2-3 hours after you eat, or get worse if you skip a meal. The pain may be relieved by antacids or milk.

Other possible symptoms include:

     
  • Nausea, vomiting  
  • Weight loss  
  • Fatigue  
  • Heartburn, indigestion, belching  
  • Chest pain  
  • Vomiting blood  
  • Bloody or dark tarry stools

It is important to note that you may have no symptoms at all from an ulcer.

Signs and tests

To diagnose an ulcer, your doctor will order one of the following tests:

     
  • An upper GI - a series of x-rays taken after you drink a substance called barium.  
  • An esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD) - a special test performed by a gastroenterologist in which a thin tube is inserted through your mouth into the gastrointestinal tract to look at your stomach and small intestines.

During an EGD, the doctor may take a biopsy from the wall of the intestines to test for H. pylori. Other less accurate ways to test for this organism include a blood test and a breath test.

Your doctor may also order:

     
  • Stool guaiac cards to test for blood in your stool  
  • Hemoglobin test to check for anemia

Treatment

You should see a doctor if you have symptoms of an ulcer. Treatment often involves a combination of medications to kill the Helicobacter pylori bacteria, reduce acid levels, and protect the GI tract. This combination strategy allows your ulcer to heal and reduces the chance it will come back. Take all of your medications exactly as prescribed.
The medications may include one or more of the following:

     
  • Antibiotics to kill Helicobacter pylori  
  • Acid blockers (like cimetidine, ranitidine, or famotidine)  
  • Proton pump inhibitors (such as omeprazole)  
  • Medications that protect the tissue lining (like sucralfate)  
  • Bismuth (may help protect the lining and kill the bacteria)

Expectations (prognosis)

Peptic ulcers tend to come back if untreated. If you follow the treatment instructions from your doctor and take all of your medications, the Helicobacter pylori infection will be eliminated and you are much less likely to get another ulcer. Your symptoms will also improve if you follow some preventive lifestyle steps.

Complications

     
  • Bleeding internally  
  • Perforation of the intestine and peritonitis  
  • Bowel obstruction

Calling your health care provider

Call 911 if you:

     
  • Suddenly develop sharp abdominal pain.  
  • Have symptoms of shock like fainting, excessive sweating, or confusion.  
  • Are vomiting blood or have blood in your stool (especially if maroon or dark, tarry black)  
  • Have a rigid, hard abdomen that is tender to touch.

Call your doctor if:

     
  • You have ulcer symptoms.  
  • You feel dizzy or lightheaded.  
  • Your symptoms worsen with antacids.

Prevention

     
  • Don’t smoke or chew tobacco.  
  • Limit alcohol.  
  • Avoid aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen. Try acetaminophen instead.  
  • Eat several small meals a day at regular intervals.  
  • Limit coffee (both caffeinated and decaffeinated), black tea, and cola.

 

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 6, 2012
by Simon D. Mitin, M.D.

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