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 your 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 are sores in the lining of the stomach or small intestine. They occur when the protective mucus that lines the stomach becomes ineffective.
The stomach produces a strong acid to help digest food and protect against microbes. To protect the tissues of the body from this acid, it also secretes a thick layer of mucus. If the mucus layer is worn away and stops functioning effectively, the acid can damage the stomach tissue, causing an ulcer.
Stomach ulcers may be easily cured, but they can become severe without proper treatment.
A stomach ulcer can be caused by a variety of factors, including:
Helicobacter pylori – bacteria are thought to be responsible for around 60 per cent of stomach ulcers and at least 90 per cent of duodenal ulcers.
Certain medications – which include aspirin or clopidogrel, taken regularly to help prevent heart attack or stroke, and drugs for arthritis. Anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS) are thought to cause around two fifths of stomach ulcers.
Cancer – stomach cancer can present as an ulcer, particularly in older people.
Diagnosing a stomach ulcer is done using a range of methods, including:
Endoscopy – a thin flexible tube is threaded down the oesophagus into the stomach under light anaesthesia. The endoscope is fitted with a small camera so the physician can see if there is an ulcer.
Barium meal – a chalky liquid is drunk and an x-ray is performed, showing the stomach lining. These tests are less common nowadays, but may be useful where endoscopy is unavailable.
Biopsy – a small tissue sample is taken during an endoscopy and tested in a laboratory. This biopsy should always be done if a gastric ulcer is found.
C14 breath test – these checks for the presence of H. pylori. The bacteria convert urea into carbon dioxide. The test involves swallowing an amount of radioactive carbon (C14) and testing the air exhaled from the lungs. A non-radioactive test can be used for children and pregnant women.
Special diets are now known to have very little impact on the prevention or treatment of stomach ulcers. Treatment options can include:
medication – including antibiotics, to destroy the H. pylori colony, and drugs to help speed the healing process. Different drugs need to be used in combination; some of the side effects can include diarrhoea and rashes. Resistance to some of these antibiotics is becoming more common
subsequent breath tests – used to make sure the H. pylori infection has been treated successfully
changes to existing medication – the doses of arthritis medication, aspirin or other anti-inflammatory medication can be altered slightly to reduce their contributing effects on the stomach ulcer.
reducing acid – tablets are available to reduce the acid content in the gastric juices
lifestyle modifications – including quitting cigarettes, since smoking reduces the natural defences in the stomach and impairs the healing process.