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 excessive use of medications called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. Aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen are examples of NSAIDs. Excess stomach acid and stress don't cause ulcers, but they may make existing ones more painful.
Stomach ulcers can be very painful, especially when acid has been released into the stomach cavity to help food digestion. They can be treated, but the treatment may need to be taken for four to eight weeks in order to work. While an 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 the pain. Medications suggested or prescribed by a doctor can also help.
The information in this article is given for general interest. Anyone with unexplained stomach pain or questions about relieving the pain should visit a doctor for a diagnosis, treatment, and advice. Self-help techniques can be very useful for dealing with a stomach ulcer but are not a substitute for medical attention.
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 one. 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 may be 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. In this location, it's 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 when taken at a high dose for a long time. They reduce the production of protective mucus in the stomach. In addition, they may irritate the stomach lining and make it bleed. If a doctor has prescribed one of the medications, a patient shouldn't stop taking the drug without their physician's advice.
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 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 Food and Drinks That Increase Pain
You may not need to eliminate the following foods and drinks from your diet. Some people find that they irritate stomach ulcers, however. If this is the case for you, you might want to avoid them until your ulcer has healed. 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, it would probably be a good idea to at least temporarily eliminate it 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 frequently advised to avoid eating close to bedtime in order to reduce acid secretion during the night.
Smoking seems to increase the chance of a stomach ulcer developing and slow or prevent the healing of one 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 stimulate ulcer development under certain conditions, taking one when an ulcer already exists might cause the problem to get worse.
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. This problem applies to certain herbal medicines as well as pharmaceutical ones.
Try to Reduce Stress
Stress doesn't cause ulcers, as was once thought, but like stomach acid it may make them 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, at least temporarily. You could:
- exercise vigorously (as long as it doesn't hurt your ulcer)
- exercise meditatively, as in yoga, Tai Chi, or a contemplative walk
- 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?
Get Help From a Doctor
If you have unexplained stomach pain that is prolonged or repeated, you need to visit a doctor for a diagnosis. If you discover that you have an ulcer or another health problem, it's important to get medical treatment and advice. If your problem is an ulcer and you're waiting for prescribed medications to work, dietary and lifestyle changes could be a big help in relieving your pain and perhaps in preventing another ulcer from forming.
References and Resources
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2013 Linda Crampton