Is it an Ulcer? Symptoms to Watch For
If you’re worried your high-speed, high-stress, fast food lifestyle may be giving you an ulcer, how can you know for sure? Ulcers affect the inside lining of our digestive tracts, causing persistent, burning and downright distressing pain. But while there are several different types of ulcers, contrary to popular belief, none of them are caused by stress or spicy foods — so you can’t blame this one on your boss or your questionable diet! What exactly does bring on an ulcer? The answer may surprise you…
Know Your Enemy
Doctors believe that most ulcers are actually the result of a bacterial infection, or are one of the side-effects of taking certain medications. Peptic ulcers are basically open sores found in various parts of the body’s digestive tract, and they’re all related to the enzyme known as pepsin. As the stomach’s main digestive weapon, pepsin is largely responsible for breaking down the protein found in the foods we eat. But sometimes this highly acidic weapon falls into the hands of the enemy, and causes us to experience the most common of all ulcer symptoms: abdominal pain.
With three main areas exposed to digestive acid on a regular basis, there are three types of ulcers we can fall victim to.
Esophageal ulcers attack the tube (the esophagus) that transports food from our mouths to our stomachs when we swallow. They’re usually associated with long-term acid reflux, where the esophagus is constantly exposed to stomach acid during that classic case of heartburn that never seems to go away.
A gastric ulcer is the abscess that most of us think of when we hear the word “ulcer.” Also known as stomach ulcers, gastric ulcers occur in the lining of – you guessed it – the stomach.
Peptic sores that form along the walls of the uppermost region of the small intestine (the duodenum), are known as duodenal ulcers. This part of the intestinal tract is exposed to many of the same acids as the stomach during the digestion process.
There are a number of ways you can end up with an ulcer, but in one way or another, they all come back to the fact that digestive acid is eating its way through the lining of your stomach, esophagus or small intestine. As you can imagine, the result of this unwelcome attack can be quite painful, and often leads to internal bleeding as well.
Under normal conditions, our digestive tracts are well shielded from the acids they contain by a thick layer of mucous that acts as a protective coating. But when something goes wrong, and things get out of balance, you can end up with too little mucous or too much acid. In either case, you run the risk of developing an ulcer.
So just what kinds of things lead to this system imbalance and leave us open to attack from our own digestive juices? The three main causes of peptic ulcers are:
- the bacteria known as Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori)
- over-the-counter pain relief medications like aspirin and ibuprofen
- the potassium supplements and prescription medications used to treat osteoporosis
- pylori is one of those sneaky little germs that hides out in the stomachs of more than half the world’s population. In many cases it doesn’t ever bother to make its presence known, and most of us will spend our lives blissfully unaware that we’re harboring a potential enemy. But when it does decide to strike – and nobody’s quite sure why it happens – H. pylori leads a determined and effective attack on your stomach lining by causing inflammation, better known as a peptic ulcer.
It seems pretty unfair that popping an aspirin or ibuprofen tablet to relieve your headache can end up giving you an ulcer instead, but there it is. If you’re a regular user of certain types of non-prescription pain relievers, you run a greater risk of irritating and inflaming your stomach and intestinal linings. This is especially true, and peptic ulcers are more common, if you’re an older adult or are using these medications to help treat osteoarthritis.
And on the topic of treatments causing trouble, taking the prescribed medications for osteoporosis known as bisphosphonates may help your bones to get stronger, but they can also help you to develop an ulcer at the same time. Same goes for the potassium supplements that often accompany this treatment.
While our old friends stress and spicy food may not be the original culprits where ulcers are concerned, they can certainly irritate an established or newly forming abscess. And you’ll also be at greater risk of developing an ulcer if you smoke or drink alcohol.
Do I Have an Ulcer?
Burning pain that’s regularly felt anywhere between your bellybutton and your breastbone is the most common symptom of a peptic ulcer. What you’re actually experiencing is the cruel and unrelenting acid in your stomach persistently sloshing up against your sore and damaged digestive lining.
Usually this pain flares up more often at night or on an empty stomach. And although downing a couple of antacids, or eating a meal of high-alkaline foodstuffs like leafy greens, potatoes or watermelon may help you to feel better temporarily, the pain will keep coming back.
Sometimes peptic ulcer symptoms go beyond a persistent tummy ache and reach far into the realm of the severe and utterly frightening. While less common, these signs definitely warrant further and immediate investigation by a medical professional, particularly if they occur in conjunction with the burning pain described earlier. You should see your doctor if:
- you experience a change in your appetite
- you start to lose weight for no reason
- you begin to suffer from nausea or vomiting
- you vomit up blood, which may have a red or even black appearance
- your stool is black, tar-like, or you notice dark blood in it
What Should I Do Now?
If you have persistent stomach or abdominal pain and think you might have an ulcer, naturally you should see your doctor and get it checked out. This is especially true if those antacids just aren’t cutting it, and the pain keeps coming back.
Depending on the cause of your ulcer, there are a number of different treatments available to help manage and heal it. These range from antibiotics to medications that are specially designed to block, reduce or neutralize stomach acid.
If you are diagnosed with a peptic ulcer, there are some things you can do outside the doctor’s office to help yourself feel better, faster:
- give your body the healing ammunition it needs by switching to a vitamin-rich diet that’s full of vegetables, fruit and whole grains
- keep stress under control by eliminating it at the source where you can, and introducing coping techniques such as journaling, exercising, and hanging out with friends where you can’t
- cut out smoking, and cut back or eliminate alcohol since both of these can increase stomach acid, and interfere with the stomach’s protective lining
Left untreated, peptic ulcers can lead to all sorts of nasty side effects that you don’t want to experience first-hand, including…
Whether it’s fast and sudden, requiring a blood transfusion — or slow and prolonged, leading to anemia — blood loss is never a good news item on the health front.
Peritonitis is a serious abdominal infection that can happen when ulcers get so out of hand that they go beyond just the digestive lining, and eat right through the stomach or intestinal wall.
Sometimes peptic ulcers lead to a buildup of scar tissue that not only impedes proper digestion, but causes vomiting and weight loss as well.
An Ounce of Prevention
As with most health predicaments, it’s far better to try and prevent ulcers before they happen than to suffer through the treatment process after the fact. Unfortunately, that’s probably easier said than done, since doctors still aren’t exactly sure how the bacterium H. pylori is spread.
But there are some simple precautions you can take. Frequent hand-washing and only eating food that’s thoroughly cooked may help to prevent H. pylori from getting a toe-hold in your tummy. And if you do have to use pain relievers on a regular basis, try to take them with meals whenever you can, and avoid drinking alcohol when you use them.