What are the Symptoms of Peptic Ulcer?

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Peptic ulcers are ulcerations that develop in various areas of the gastrointestinal tract including the esophagus, stomach and the small intestine. The most common ones involve the uppermost portion of the small intestine called the duodenum. They’re commonly caused by the chronic use of aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications - or infection with a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori. What are the signs and symptoms of peptic ulcers?

Signs and Symptoms of Peptic Ulcers

When acid comes into contact with an open area such as ulcer, it causes a burning type of pain. This is exactly what happens with a peptic ulcer. Stomach acid has a low pH and when it encounters an ulcerated area in the digestive tract; it causes a gnawing, burning kind of pain. This pain is usually most pronounced in the upper region of the abdomen called the epigastium and may radiate into the back.

The pain and burning are most noticeable when the stomach is empty and may be temporarily relieved by eating a meal - only to reappear several hours later as the stomach empties. Certain foods can aggravate the pain and other symptoms of peptic ulcer including acidic foods, alcohol and coffee.

In some cases, the symptoms of peptic ulcer come and go. A person with a peptic ulcer may have periods of weeks where they have no symptoms only to have them return again and again. Less commonly, a person with peptic ulcer disease can be completely asymptomatic.

More Serious Peptic Ulcer Symptoms

Less common symptoms of peptic ulcer disease are nausea and vomiting. In some cases, a peptic ulcer will bleed, which causes vomiting of blood and stools that are dark and tarry in color. This is medical emergency and requires immediate attention.

When complications occur, the signs and symptoms of peptic ulcer disease may become more pronounced and new ones may develop. Rarely, a peptic ulcer perforates or breaks through the wall of the stomach or intestine into the pelvic cavity. When this happens, it produces severe pain that radiates into the back. This is a situation that needs prompt medical attention to avoid shock and a life-threatening infection involving the pelvic cavity.

When a peptic ulcer involves the pylorus, the lower portion of the stomach that leads into the small intestine, it can form an obstruction that blocks the movement of food out of the stomach and into the intestines. When this complication occurs, symptoms usually include severe nausea and vomiting – and emergency treatment is needed to prevent dehydration and relieve the obstruction.

Signs and Symptoms of Peptic Ulcer Disease: The Bottom Line?

Peptic ulcer disease may be asymptomatic, but it can also cause severe, sometimes life-threatening, symptoms and complications. It’s a condition that needs prompt attention and treatment.

References

Professional Guide to Diseases. Ninth edition. Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkinson. 2009.