Stomach Ulcer Causes and Treatment

Hydrochloric acid is known to most high-school students as a potent acid that can eat through many substances and cause nasty burns on your skin. This acid is also naturally produced in the body, and in its correct place in the stomach does no harm to the body but aids food digestion. Specialized cells lining the stomach make the acid and release it in response to the sight or smell of food. We also start to produce more saliva when food is nearby, and if the food is not forthcoming, we are left drooling and with an ache in the gut, because no food has been eaten to soak up the saliva and acid. We normally end up eating the food we expect, and the acid works in the stomach to break it down to its basic components. Further digestive enzymes are added to the food when it passes out of the stomach into the small intestine.

The cells lining the stomach protect themselves from attack by the acid with a thin layer of mucus. If there is excess acid, or insufficient mucus present, the acid may be able to attack the stomach wall. Many factors can produce either or both of these stomach problems. The most common triggers are smoking, stress, alcohol, and aspirin-type medications. Anxiety can cause excess acid to be produced, which can then eat into the stomach. Smoking can reduce the mucus secretions that protect the stomach, while aspirin and some anti-arthritis drugs can directly damage the mucus layer.

As the acid attacks the stomach wall, it causes a gastric or stomach ulcer, the same as an acid burn on the skin. The first part of the small intestine (the duodenum) may also develop an ulcer (duodenal ulcer), as excess acid overflows from the stomach. Pyloric ulcers develop at the point where a muscle ring acts as a valve between the stomach and duodenum. The term peptic ulcer refers to all three types of ulcer.

Unlike the skin, the stomach has few nerve cells, and the acid may eat through to a blood vessel and cause bleeding, anemia and weakness before any pain is felt. Most ulcers cause pain, which may be severe because the acid is attacking a nerve. The pain is often at its worst just before a meal when the acid levels are highest, and food (particularly milk) may relieve the pain. Once a person has the severe pain high up in the abdomen that is characteristic of an ulcer, it is important to have the diagnosis proved and treatment started quickly in order to avoid complications. Other symptoms can include a feeling of fullness, burping excessively, and indigestion. Doctors will prove the presence of an ulcer by a barium meal X-ray or gastroscopy. Surgery for ulcers is rarely required these days, as the majority of patients can be cured or controlled by medication (antiulcerants and antacids). The patient's diet needs to be sensible and well balanced, but most foods can be taken in moderation. The victim can also help by not smoking and by learning to relax.

A very small percentage of ulcers can be cancerous, so it is vital that the disease is correctly diagnosed and treated.

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