Stomach Ulcers | Digestive Health Program | Loyola Medicine

Stomach Ulcers

Overview and Facts about Stomach Ulcers

Stomach ulcers, also called gastric ulcers, are painful sores that develop inside the stomach lining. Gastric ulcers occur when the thick layer of mucus that normally protects your stomach from digestive juices gets worn or damaged, often due to a bacterial infection or from long-term use of pain medications. Exposed stomach tissues then get eaten away by the acids that aid in digestion, creating an open sore.   

Stomach ulcers are considered a type of peptic ulcer, a condition that affects the stomach and upper part of the small intestine. They are completely curable; however, severe digestive health problems may occur if stomach ulcers are left untreated.

Causes and Risk Factors of Stomach Ulcers

Stomach ulcers are caused when the protective layer of mucus is eroded, exposing the stomach lining to harmful digestive acids. Damage to the mucus layer is most often due to an infection from the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) or from the long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). In rare cases, a condition called Zollinger-Ellison syndrome is responsible for the development of ulcers, as the syndrome causes the body to increase acid production.

Signs and Symptoms of Stomach Ulcers

The most common symptom associated with gastric ulcers is burning stomach pain, which is typically more intense when you have an empty stomach and can last from a few minutes to several hours. While they do not cause ulcers, stress and spicy foods can aggravate your symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of peptic ulcers include:

  • A feeling of fullness
  • Anemia
  • Belching or acid reflux
  • Bloating
  • Blood in the vomit
  • Burning stomach pain
  • Dark-colored stool
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain that improves when you drink, eat, or take antacids
  • Weight loss

Tests and Diagnosis of Stomach Ulcers

To diagnose a stomach ulcer, your doctor will discuss your medical history and review any over-the-counter or prescription medications you are currently taking. Blood, stool or a breath test may be used to determine the presence of the H. pylori bacterium in your body. Other methods of diagnosing stomach ulcers include:

  • A biopsy, or small tissue sample, which may be taken during an endoscopy and examined under a microscope
  • Endoscopy, which involves inserting a thin tube with a camera into your digestive tract to look for ulcers or bleeding
  • Imaging tests like a barium swallow, which helps your stomach and intestines appear in an x-ray

Treatment and Care for Stomach Ulcers

Treatment of stomach ulcers depends on the underlying cause. Antibiotics are used to kill the H. pylori bacterium, and medications such as proton pump inhibitors and histamine blockers can reduce stomach acid or block acid production to help the stomach tissue heal.

Stopping use of all NSAIDs is typically required in treating ulcers. In rare cases, surgery is needed to remove the ulcer and/or repair the damaged tissues.

Antacids can help relieve symptoms, but do not heal the ulcer itself. Lifestyle changes can also reduce pain and include improving digestive health habits, managing stress, avoiding alcohol and getting enough sleep.