An ulcer is an open sore that has developed along your digestive tract. Although they can occur in a variety of locations, they are most commonly found in your stomach (gastric ulcers), and the first part of your small bowel known as the duodenum (duodenal ulcers). Ulcers, like any open sore, can be painful but can also show no symptoms.
There is no one single cause of ulcers, but many factors can contribute to their formation. Excess acid in your stomach is one factor that can lead to an ulcer. Your stomach produces acids to digest food and too much acid can be harmful. Healthy stomachs will produce a protective mucus to cover the stomach lining and protect it from the digestive acids.
Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is a bacteria that has been found in the stomach of 60-80% of people with gastric ulcers and in almost all people with duodenal ulcers. Physicians believe that an infection with this bacteria in some way acts to cause an ulcer. Ongoing research is being done to determine how this occurs.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil), and Naprosyn (Aleve) cause the formation of ulcers by weakening the protective mucus layer in your stomach. Some foods can contribute to ulcer formation by increasing the production of acid in your stomach or impairing the production of mucus. Spicy foods and caffeinated beverages are a few examples. Tobacco and alcohol can also work to cause ulcers and can make symptoms worse.
Ulcers may or may not cause symptoms, and the symptoms can come and go. Common symptoms include burning, crampy or gnawing abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. Pain usually occurs shortly after a meal or when lying down. Ulcers can also cause internal bleeding which results in black, tarry looking stools. In order to diagnose an ulcer, your physician may order an x-ray. Another test is called an EGD, which uses a thin, flexible tube called an endoscope. Using an endoscope, the physician can actually see the lining of your esophagus and stomach in order to determine if you have an ulcer. The physician can also take tissue samples to test for H. pylori.
Food may temporarily relieve symptoms because it can coat your stomach, but the food will also cause acid secretion. Your physician can prescribe medications to reduce the acid production in your stomach. Avoid foods and medications which make your symptoms worse. Decrease caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol use. If you have H. pylori, your physician may prescribe antibiotics to eliminate the bacteria from you digestive system.