A woman holding her stomach.

Everything You Need to Know About Gastric Ulcers

Gastric Ulcer Symptoms

Peptic ulcer disease affects around 4 million people annually in the U.S. It occurs more commonly in older age groups, but occasionally it can affect children as well. Men are also more likely to develop peptic ulcer disease than women.

A peptic ulcer is a broad term under which there are two types of ulcers: gastric ulcer and duodenal ulcer. Duodenal ulcers are ulcers that occur in the intestine, while gastric ulcers affect the stomach. In this article, we’ll explain what a gastric ulcer is as well as its causes, symptoms, and treatment.

What is a Gastric Ulcer?

We all know that the stomach's main function is to further break down the food we eat. It does this by digesting the food through its stomach acid. The stomach protects itself from its own acid by providing a barrier that lines the stomach.

However, if this barrier breaks down, the lining becomes inflamed and damaged, resulting in sores in the stomach known as gastric ulcers.

What Are the Causes?

The most common causes are Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). The H. pylori bacteria irritates and damages the stomach lining, breaking down its defense against acid. Prolonged usage of NSAIDs, such as Ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin, can also damage the stomach lining, causing gastric ulcers.

You are also at risk of a gastric ulcer if you have a preexisting condition that causes an increased production of stomach acid. One common example is Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome, where tumors cause gastric ulcers to form from an overproduction of stomach acid.

Lastly, while high amounts of stress, your diet, alcohol, and smoking do not directly cause a gastric ulcer, they can certainly worsen the condition.

Gastric Ulcer Signs and Symptoms

A common symptom of gastric ulcer is stomach pain. There are many kinds of stomach pain; however, gastric ulcer pain is typically a burning sensation while eating. Whereas for duodenal or intestinal ulcers, you feel the pain after you eat.

Indigestion, nausea, and vomiting are also possible symptoms. However, they are not specific to a gastric ulcer and can be due to other conditions. Sometimes, the vomit may resemble dark coffee grounds due to bleeding in the stomach lining.

Another symptom is black stools, caused by any bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract. You should consult your doctor if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, especially if they don’t go away or have been happening for a long time. Vomit resembling coffee grounds and passing black stools are alarming symptoms that need to be evaluated right away.

Other less common signs and symptoms include bloating, loss of appetite, weight loss, and anemia.

How Do You Diagnose Gastric Ulcers?

A doctor may be able to diagnose you based on the above symptoms. However, further testing can confirm it. Gastric ulcers are usually identified through visualization, so your doctor will likely schedule an endoscopy or gastroscopy, where a camera is inserted into the digestive tract. This way, they can see and know for certain if there are any ulcers.

They will also likely check for the H. pylori bacteria using a breath, blood, or stool test, so they can treat the infection if you have it.

What Are the Treatment Options?

As with most conditions, making some modifications to your lifestyle will help. Avoid smoking and drinking alcohol, especially as the ulcer heals. With proper treatment, most ulcers heal in a period of one to two months.

Depending on the cause, there are various treatment options for gastric ulcers. Treatment mainly focuses on reducing the acid production in the stomach:

  • Proton pump inhibitors, which can heal an ulcer in up to eight weeks.
  • H2-receptor antagonists if the ulcers are due to prolonged usage of NSAIDs.
  • Antacids, which neutralize the acidity in the stomach, may be given while waiting for the previously mentioned medications to take effect. They provide faster relief from stomach pain.
  • Antibiotics, if H. pylori caused the gastric ulcer, to kill the bacteria.

Complicated gastric ulcers, such as those that persist or recur despite previous treatment, ulcers that were treated but did not heal, or those with other complications such as bleeding or tears in the stomach, will need further treatment aside from the treatment options mentioned above.

If oral medications don’t work, gastric ulcers can also be treated surgically by removing or fixing the ulcer or cutting a nerve supply to decrease the production of stomach acid.

Final Thoughts

Gastric ulcers are a common condition experienced by many Americans. It is a condition caused by the acid in your stomach. It is important to learn about it so that you can have yourself evaluated by your physician if you suspect you have one.

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