Reducing Stomach Ulcer Pain While Waiting for Treatment to Work
What Is a Stomach Ulcer?
A stomach ulcer is a sore on the inside of the stomach. The majority of stomach ulcers are caused by a bacterium named Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori. Most of the remaining cases are caused by long term use of medications called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. Aspirin and ibuprofen are examples of NSAIDs. Excess stomach acid and stress don't cause ulcers, but they may make existing ulcers more painful.
Stomach ulcers can be very painful, especially when acid has been released into the stomach cavity to help food digestion. Ulcers can be treated, but the treatment generally requires four to eight weeks. While the ulcer is healing it's important to treat it gently. An irritated ulcer can make life miserable.
Luckily, there are things that can be done to reduce pain from a stomach ulcer while waiting for prescribed treatments to work. A nutritious diet that includes certain foods, the elimination of foods that trigger pain, a healthy lifestyle, and stress reduction can all help to relieve ulcer pain. Medications suggested or prescribed by a doctor can also relieve pain.
Stomach, Gastric, and Peptic Ulcers: What's the Difference?
Stomach ulcers are sometimes called gastric ulcers. The term "peptic ulcer" is also used, but this term refers to either a stomach ulcer or a duodenal ulcer. The duodenum is the first part of the small intestine and is a common site of ulcer formation.
Often, pain from a stomach ulcer is worse soon after eating as acid production increases in the stomach. Pain from a dudodenal ulcer is worse two to three hours after eating when the food has left the stomach and entered the duodenum.
Occasionally, a peptic ulcer develops in the lining of the esophagus. This ulcer is also known as an esophageal ulcer. The esophagus is the tube that travels from the throat to the stomach. A muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter normally prevents stomach contents from entering the esophagus. Sometimes the sphincter doesn't close the passageway properly, however, allowing material to move from the stomach into the esophagus. Irritants entering the esophagus from the mouth can also cause esophageal ulcers.
What Causes a Stomach Ulcer?
The stomach lining is protected from damage by a layer of mucus. This mucus prevents the hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes in the stomach cavity from irritating the stomach lining. The acid is required for protein digestion to take place. It also kills bacteria that have entered the stomach.
Helicobacter pylori hides in the mucus layer covering the stomach lining and is protected from an attack by acid and enzymes. In some people the bacterium is present but causes no problems. In others, the presence of the bacterium leads to a weakened mucus layer, inflammation, and an ulcer.
Aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can also cause ulcers. They reduce the production of protective mucus in the stomach. They may also irritate the stomach lining and make it bleed.
Anyone with unexplained stomach pain should visit a doctor for a diagnosis and treatment. Self-help techniques can be very useful for dealing with a stomach ulcer but are not a substitute for medical treatment and advice.
A Doctor Describes Stomach Ulcers
Follow a Healthy Diet to Help Relieve Pain
Following a healthy diet will help to strengthen the immune system, which may aid the healing of a stomach ulcer. Some healthy foods may directly fight an ulcer and relieve the pain that it causes.
Vegetable, legumes or pulses (beans, lentils and peas), fruits, and whole grains are generally recommended as the main components of a good diet. Plant foods are rich in beneficial nutrients. Cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and kale may be especially useful in treating an ulcer. Cranberries and cranberry juice may fight Helicobacter pylori. Cranberry juice often contains lots of sweetener, however.
Foods from plants are high in fibre, which has been shown to reduce the risk of peptic ulcer development. Both soluble and insoluble fibre are important in the diet, but soluble fibre seems to be the most useful type with respect to peptic ulcers. Foods rich in soluble fibre include oats, barley, beans, peas, and lentils.
Healthy fats include the omega-3 fatty acids in oily fish and the monounsaturated fatty acids in olive oil. Lean protein is also an important component of the diet. Extra virgin olive oil and unsweetened yogurt containing live probiotics (good bacteria) are both excellent foods. There is some evidence that they are helpful for an ulcer, but they should probably be eaten in small to moderate quantities. An excessive amount of fat or protein may be irritating for some ulcer patients.
Some foods may trigger stomach pain in people with ulcers. What causes pain in one patient may not hurt another patient, however. It's important that a person doesn't eliminate or restrict the ingestion of a healthy food unless they're sure that it makes their pain worse.
Avoid Personally Irritating Food and Drinks
Some possible causes of ulcer irritation include:
- foods that are high in fat
- spicy foods
- acids from citrus fruits (such as oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit)
- beverages with a high caffeine level, such as coffee
- carbonated beverages
- decaffeinated coffee
If someone knows that a food irritates their stomach even when they don't have an ulcer, that food should be at least temporarily eliminated from their diet.
The old idea that milk can soothe the discomfort of an ulcer has now been discarded. In fact, milk may increase discomfort because it's quite high in protein and stimulates acid production.
Try Eating Small Servings of Some Foods
Try eating red meat and other very high-protein foods in small servings. When protein is eaten, hydrochloric acid is released into the stomach cavity to activate pepsin, the enzyme that digests the protein. Protein is an important nutrient and needs to be part of the diet. Foods that are concentrated sources of protein require a larger amount of acid for digestion than foods containing a smaller amount of protein, however.
People with a stomach ulcer are often advised to eat small or moderately sized meals instead of large ones. When a smaller meal is eaten less stomach acid is produced. In addition, a very large meal can stretch the stomach and make an ulcer more painful. Patients are also advised not to eat close to bedtime in order to reduce acid secretion during the night.
H. pylori and Stomach Ulcers
Smoking seems to increase the chance of a stomach ulcer developing and slow or prevent the healing of an ulcer that is already present. It increases the amount of stomach acid that is produced and decreases the amount of sodium bicarbonate made in the small intestine. The bicarbonate neutralizes the acid that enters the intestine from the stomach, so when less bicarbonate is present there is more acid to irritate an ulcer in the intestine.
Be Careful with Medications
Take your prescribed medication at the correct time and don't miss any doses in order to heal your ulcer. If you want to take any over-the-counter pain relievers or antacids, discuss whether this is advisable with your doctor and also ask which medications are best. Acetaminophen (paracetamol) may be appropriate as a pain reliever, since it isn't an NSAID. Since NSAIDs can cause ulcers, taking one when an ulcer already exists could not only cause the ulcer to get worse but even be dangerous.
If you have an ulcer, remember to tell your doctor about all the medications that you take without his or her knowledge, including herbal medicines and supplements. Some medications can irritate ulcers and some can interact with prescribed medicines.
Try to Reduce Stress
Stress doesn't cause ulcers, as was once thought, but like stomach acid it may make ulcers worse. If you are living a stressful life, it's important to think about ways in which you could eliminate or reduce the stress. Talking to friends, relatives, or a counselor could help you in this process. They may have some creative ideas that haven't occurred to you. It's also important to find relaxation techniques that help you manage any stress that can't be eliminated. The list below gives some methods of relaxation that I find useful.
Tips for Relieving Stress
One or more of the following activities may help you relax and forget about any stress that you can't avoid. You could:
- exercise vigorously (as long as it doesn't hurt your ulcer)
- exercise meditatively, as in yoga or Tai Chi
- explore an interesting place while walking or cycling
- take your dog for a walk
- observe nature
- do gardening
- read a book that interests you
- listen to music that engrosses or relaxes you
- watch a movie that interests you
- socialize with friends or go to a fun event with them
- do creative writing
- draw or paint
- go on a photography walk
- work on a craft
- play a musical instrument
Some people find that thinking about their spiritual beliefs or their religion relieves their stress.
An Ulcer Poll
Have you ever had a stomach ulcer or a duodenal ulcer?
See a Doctor
If you have unexplained stomach pain that is prolonged or repeated, you need to visit a doctor. If you discover that you have an ulcer it's important to get medical treatment and advice. While you're waiting for prescribed medications to work, however, dietary and lifestyle changes could be a big help in relieving your pain and in preventing another ulcer from forming.
© 2013 Linda Crampton