Fire in the Hole?

Medication and a careful diet can reduce the painful effects of stomach ulcers.

One of the most frustrating things about pain when you’re on the road is your inability to do much about it. Too many miles still to go before you can stop. When it comes to the volcanic pain of stomach ulcers, think prevention whether you are behind the wheel or the lunch counter, and you may never have to face it.

Stomach ulcers are often blamed on too much stress in the movies and on TV. But in real life, only one out of 10 ulcers are caused by stress or other factors like certain medications and illnesses. The other nine are caused by bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Approximately 25 million Americans suffer from peptic ulcer disease at some point in their lifetime – small, open craters or sores that develop in the lining of the stomach or the duodenum, the first section of the small intestine. The term peptic ulcer is generally used to describe all types of ulcers.

The most common ulcer symptom is gnawing or burning pain in the abdomen. This typically occurs when the stomach is empty, between meals and in the early morning hours, but it can also occur at other times. It may last from minutes to hours and may be relieved by eating or by taking antacids. Less common ulcer symptoms include nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite.

Bleeding is a serious complication, and prolonged bleeding may cause anemia, leading to weakness and fatigue. If bleeding is heavy, the vomiting of blood or the passage of bloody stools may occur. Pepto Bismol, often taken for relief of ulcer symptoms, may also cause black discoloration of the stools. In the case of severe hemorrhage, weakness, fatigue, loss of consciousness and/or shock may result.

Another serious ulcer complication is perforation. This can develop as stomach acid erodes through the intestinal wall and spills into the abdominal cavity. The first sign of perforation is sudden, intense, steady abdominal pain. If you are experiencing this type of pain, contact your doctor immediately.

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A third complication of ulcers is obstruction of the digestive tract, usually at the junction of the stomach and duodenum, as old ulcer scars accumulate and narrow the passageway through this area. As a result, food and fluid passing from the stomach to the duodenum may be restricted or blocked altogether, producing a distended stomach (from retained food and secretions), intense pain and continued vomiting.

Though you may not be able to prevent an ulcer, there are plenty of ways to alleviate discomfort and help the ulcer heal if you get one. Smoking cigarettes has consistently been found to slow down the healing of an ulcer. Avoiding alcohol, aspirin and other inflammation-reducing drugs is also advisable, especially during a flare-up, because these substances cause increased stomach acid production, which weakens the stomach lining and makes it vulnerable to damage. Eat regular, nutritious meals. Use common sense, and avoid foods that bother you. Alcohol, nicotine and tobacco cause the most acid production in the stomach.

Other dietary factors may include tomatoes, citrus, spicy foods, chocolate and mint.

Many different types of drugs are available for treating ulcers. Some are over-the-counter preparations that are used to neutralize stomach acid, such as Tums, Maalox, Mylanta or Rolaids, and others are prescription medications that promote healing by inhibiting acid secretion, blocking acid production, eliminating the ulcer-causing bacteria or providing a protective coating over the ulcer. Your doctor will prescribe these medications according to the likely cause for your ulcer, based on the symptoms and medical history and the type of ulcer you have.

For most people with ulcers, a corrective diet, drug therapy, or a combination of the two makes surgery unnecessary. Indications for surgery are serious complications such as perforation, obstruction due to scarring and/or unrelenting bleeding. Uncontrollable pain may also justify surgery, but usually only after other treatments have failed.

How to avoid irritating an ulcer:

  1. Seek treatment for your ulcer immediately. In nine out of 10 cases, ulcers are caused by a bacterial infection that can be treated with antibiotics. In other words, no more ulcer.
  2. If your ulcer can’t be treated with antibiotics, ask your doctor about medicines, such as antacids, that will reduce stomach acid and, thus, irritation.
  3. Avoid stress – perhaps the most effective way to prevent or minimize symptoms of ulcers.
  4. Quit smoking (and avoid secondhand smoke) and limit or eliminate your consumption of alcohol, caffeine and spicy and fatty foods.
  5. Eat regular meals. Four or five small meals at regular intervals throughout the day will decrease gastric secretion hyperactivity.
  6. Avoid skipping meals. Try to keep some food in your stomach at all times.
  7. Drink milk. Skim milk is best.
  8. Avoid taking vitamins, especially vitamin C, on an empty stomach.
  9. Chew on a few saltines or sip a bit of carbonated beverage if you feel yourself getting nervous or irritable.
  10. Avoid aspirin and drugs such as ibuprofen.

–Kristin Record