What is an ulcer? An ulcer is a specific term that signifies any open sore, lesion or break in the skin or in a mucous membrane. A thin tissue that lines the inner surface of body openings such as a lining of the stomach and intestines is a mucous membrane. However as a generalized concept or as a most commonly referred to concept, people speak of ulcers that occur in the upper digestive system such as peptic ulcers. The digestive system comprises of esophagus, stomach, duodenum and intestines. Ulcers in the stomach are called gastric ulcers, and likewise there are duodenal ulcers and esophageal ulcers. Duodenal ulcers account for 80% cases of peptic ulcers.
There are many symptoms of ulcers. The most common sign of ulcers is an intermittent and irritating pain in the stomach this pain also transfers to other areas such as the shoulder blades, back, indigestion, heartburn, gas, bloating, appetite loss and nausea. A few well known symptoms of ulcers are back pain, headache, itching and choking sensation.
A few years back it was widely considered by physicians that lots of excessive stress was a major cause of ulcers in people. Their theory was that lots of stress increases the production of hydrochloric acid in the body. This acid is strong enough to eat away the proactive mucous lining of the stomach causing an ulcer. Although still widely accepted by many, there is a newer theory that bacterial infection is responsible for ulcers in more that 70 to 80% of the cases.
Bacteria 'Helicobacter Pylori' is the most common bacteria known to cause gastric ulceration. These bacteria can burrow into the mucous layer of stomach and produce inflammation. Excessive acidic juices generated by stomach due to spicy foods are capable of burning the lining of digestive tract and thereby damaging the digestive system. Extreme physical and emotional stress is likely to aggravate an existing ulcer, though it is normally not considered as a root cause for ulcer.
Apart form the infection, use of non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs can also trigger ulcers. NSAIDs are commonly used by people as pain killers for headaches, sore muscles, menstrual cramps and other similar situations. Belonging to this family of NSAIDs is aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen, excessive use of such type of drugs may prove to be detrimental to the stomach lining and cause ulcers. Mucosal protection is further damaged by over consumption of Alcoholic beverages and heavy smoking.
As a first step towards ulcer diagnosis, any physician would inquire about the symptoms. Besides the symptoms, the physician would look for factors from a patient's such as any cases of family history of ulcers or stomach cancers, frequency of alcohol consumption, smoking habits, patient's age, recent weight loss, repeated nausea or vomiting incidences, back pain, history of using anti-inflammatory drugs or other NSAIDs. Apart from the symptoms and patient's history, endoscopy is a modern approach to minimally invasive diagnostic medical procedure. Endoscopy is also well accepted as one of the best methods of diagnosing ulcers. An endoscope is a narrow tube which contains a light and tiny camera at its end to study the patient's digestive system. When this tube is inserted down the patient's throat the physician can examine the interior walls of the stomach and duodenum. Endoscope can also carry a small scissor to cut off small sample of mucous membrane for further examination of potential stomach cancer.
Imaging techniques are not as reliable as endoscopy but are also used frequently as patients are becoming more comfortable with this technique. Using the imaging technique, the patient is made to drink a fluid containing barium. Barium is a substance which is opaque and transparent to x-rays. An x-ray image of the patient's digestive system can show any abnormalities like ulcers that may be present wherein the opaque substance appears as a white patch on the x-ray image. Most of the symptoms of ulcers can be treated with over the counters medications which can relieve the pain, nausea or other general discomfort created by ulcers.
Ulcers and especially Peptic Ulcers do cause severe back pain. Such pain is likely to happen immediately after eating when some one is suffering from ulcers.