Symptoms of Peptic Ulcer Disease

Woman with stomach cramps
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Peptic ulcers are open wounds found either in the stomach (gastric ulcers) or the upper part of the small intestine, otherwise known as the duodenum (duodenal ulcers). Peptic ulcers can cause a variety of symptoms, such as pain, discomfort, or gas, though many people do not experience any symptoms at all. Peptic ulcers can get worse, may bleed, and can cause a perforation (hole) or obstruction (blockage) in the digestive system—all serious emergencies. This is why you should consult your doctor if you notice any related symptoms. 

Frequent Symptoms

Pain is the most common symptom of a peptic ulcer. It is typically located in the upper part of the abdomen, anywhere from your breastbone to your navel, but you may also feel it in your back. Your pain may be dull, burning, or gnawing; it is less commonly intense or stabbing. Often, the pain is worse at night or in the morning, but it can vary. The duration of pain can last from a few minutes to a few hours.

Many people with peptic ulcers particularly complain of pain on an empty stomach. You may experience relief immediately after eating only to have pain return or worsen within an hour. This brief reprieve does not cause people with ulcers to overeat, however, as frequent nausea and discomfort can squash appetite or the desire to eat. Some people feel that certain foods (like fatty choices) exacerbate the symptoms, while other foods either alleviate or do not affect them.

While pain is the most common symptom, be aware that more than half of the people with peptic ulcers have no symptoms at all.

Other common symptoms of peptic ulcers include:

  • Discomfort, bloating
  • Indigestion, heartburn
  • Chronic nausea or a sense of discomfort with eating
  • Frequent burping
  • Loss of appetite

Rare Symptoms

Be aware of these symptoms, which are more severe and could point to a complication:

  • Vomiting
  • Vomiting blood
  • Blood in the stool that is black and tarry in appearance
  • Fatigue or weakness, which can result from malnutrition or anemia due to small amounts of bleeding from the ulcer
  • Unexplained weight loss

Symptoms of peptic ulcers can occur as a result of other conditions, including gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), chronic dyspepsia, gallbladder disease, liver disease, or a gastrointestinal infection. It's important to see your doctor to determine what's at the root of your pain.

Complications/Sub-Group Indications

There are a number of complications that can occur if you have a chronic or worsening peptic ulcer. These include:

  • Bleeding: Bleeding is the most common complication of peptic ulcer disease. Slow and subtle bleeding can often go unnoticed and may be detected only once you have developed anemia due to this constant small loss of blood. Black or tarry stools are a sign of this bleeding. But the ulcer can erode a blood vessel and cause a sudden and even massive loss of blood, becoming life-threatening.
  • Malnutrition: You can become deficient in vitamins and minerals due to low food intake. Immune deficiencies, bone weakness, and skin fragility can all result from malnutrition, but may not be noticeable at first. However, malnutrition is not common in today's world as a complication of peptic ulcers.
  • Perforation: An ulcer can eventually wear away at the lining of the stomach or small intestine, causing a perforation (hole), which can leak gastrointestinal fluid into the body. This can cause severe abdominal pain and shock. This is an emergency that requires urgent medical treatment, often surgery.
  • Obstruction: An ulcer can become inflamed, blocking the passageway of digested food and causing severe dysfunction of the small intestine. Like perforation, this is a medical emergency.
  • Fistula: A perforated ulcer can establish a connection (fistula) with an adjacent abdominal organ or structure, including the colon, biliary tree, pancreas, or a major blood vessel. This results in exchanges of material and fluids, which can result in vomiting these materials or hemorrhages. This is a medical emergency that requires surgical correction.

People are prone to peptic ulcers due to infection by the Helicobacter pylori bacterium, but there are some habits that can contribute to their development, such as taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) or smoking. These habits interfere with your natural production of the mucus that coats your digestive system to protect it from acidity, abrasion, and bleeding. 

When to See a Doctor/Go to the Hospital

You may feel relief with an antacid, but you should not ignore symptoms of a peptic ulcer. If you have persistent symptoms for longer than a week, it is best to see your doctor. He or she will determine whether you need prescription medications and whether you have complications, such as bleeding or anemia. 

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have:

  • Pain that radiates to the back
  • Pain that doesn't go away when you take medication
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Weakness, fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty swallowing

Call or see a doctor immediately if you have these serious symptoms:

  • Vomiting blood
  • Black or tar-like stool
  • Sudden, severe pain in the abdominal area
  • Fevers, chills, shaking, dizziness, or loss of consciousness

A Word From Verywell

Peptic ulcers do not simply go away on their own. Be sure to see your doctor when you notice the symptoms. While it can take time to heal, since the discovery of H. pylori as a cause it is now curable rather than something you must simply learn to live with.

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