Indigestion (Dyspepsia, Upset Stomach)

  • Medical Author:
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

What are the complications of indigestion (dyspepsia)?

The complications of functional diseases of the gastrointestinal tract are relatively limited. Since symptoms are most often provoked by eating, patients who alter their diets and reduce their intake of calories may lose weight. However, loss of weight is unusual in functional diseases. In fact, loss of weight should suggest the presence of non-functional diseases. Symptoms that awaken patients from sleep also are more likely to be due to non-functional than functional disease.

Most commonly, functional diseases interfere with patients' comfort and daily activities. Individuals who develop nausea or pain after eating may skip breakfast or lunch because of the symptoms they experience. Patients also commonly associate symptoms with specific foods (for example, milk, fat, vegetables). Whether or not the associations are real, these patients will restrict their diets accordingly. Milk is the most common food that is eliminated, often unnecessarily, and this can lead to inadequate intake of calcium and osteoporosis. The interference with daily activities also can lead to problems with interpersonal relationships, especially with spouses. Most patients with functional disease live with their symptoms and infrequently visit physicians for diagnosis and treatment.

What can a person expect during the diagnosis and treatment of indigestion (prognosis)?

The initial approach to dyspepsia, whether it be treatment or testing, depends on the patient's age, symptoms and the duration of the symptoms. If the patient is younger than 50 years of age and serious disease, particularly cancer, is not likely, testing is less important. If the symptoms are typical for dyspepsia and have been present for many years without change, then there is less need for testing, or at least extensive testing, to exclude other gastrointestinal and non-gastrointestinal diseases.

On the other hand, if the symptoms are of recent onset (weeks or months), progressively worsening, severe, or associated with "warning" signs, then early, more extensive testing is appropriate. Warning signs include loss of weight, nighttime awakening, blood in the stool or the material that is vomited (vomitus), and signs of inflammation, such as fever or abdominal tenderness. Testing also is appropriate if, in addition to symptoms of dyspepsia, there are other prominent symptoms that are not commonly associated with dyspepsia.

If there are symptoms that suggest conditions other than dyspepsia, tests that are specific for these diseases should be done first. The reason is that if these other tests disclose other diseases, it may not be necessary to do additional testing. Examples of such symptoms and possible testing include:

  • Vomiting: upper gastrointestinal endoscopy to diagnose inflammatory or obstructing diseases; gastric emptying studies and/or electrogastrography to diagnose impaired emptying of the stomach.
  • Abdominal distention with or without increased flatulence: upper gastrointestinal and small intestinal x-rays to diagnose obstructing diseases; hydrogen breath testing to diagnose bacterial overgrowth of the small intestine.

For a patient with typical symptoms of dyspepsia who requires testing to exclude other diseases, a standard screening panel of blood tests would reasonably be included. These tests might reveal clues to non-gastrointestinal diseases. Sensitive stool testing (antigen/antibody) for Giardia lamblia would be reasonable because this parasitic infection is common and can be acute or chronic. Some physicians do blood testing for celiac disease (sprue), but the value of doing this is unclear. Moreover, if an EGD is planned, biopsies of the duodenum usually will make the diagnosis of celiac disease. A plain X-ray of the abdomen might be done during an episode of abdominal pain (to look for intestinal blockage or obstruction). Testing for lactose intolerance or a trial of a strict lactose-free diet should be considered. The physician's clinical judgment should determine the extent to which initial testing is appropriate.

Once testing has been done to an extent that is appropriate for the clinical situation, it is reasonable to first try a therapeutic trial of stomach acid suppression to see if symptoms improve. Such a trial probably should involve a PPI (proton pump inhibitor) for 8 to 12 weeks. If there is no clear response of symptoms, the options then are to discontinue the PPI or confirm its effectiveness in suppressing acid with 24 hour acid testing. If there is a clear and substantial decrease in symptoms with the PPI, then decisions need to be made about continuing acid suppression and which drugs to use.

Another therapeutic approach is to test for Helicobacter pylori infection of the stomach (with blood, breath or stool tests) and to treat patients with infection to eradicate the infection. It may be necessary to retest patients after treatment to prove that treatment has effectively eradicated the infection, particularly if dyspeptic symptoms persist after treatment.

If treatment with a PPI has satisfactorily suppressed acid according to acid testing (or acid suppression has not been measured) and yet the symptoms have not improved, it is reasonable to conduct further testing as described above. Esophago-gastro-duodenoscopy, or EGD, (and, possibly, colonoscopy) would be the next consideration, probably with multiple biopsies of the stomach and duodenum (and colon if colonoscopy is done). Finally, small intestinal x-rays and an ultrasound examination of the gallbladder might be done. An abdominal ultrasound examination, CT scan, or MRI scan can exclude non-gastrointestinal diseases. Once appropriate testing has been completed, empiric trials of other drugs (for example, smooth muscle relaxants, psychotropic drugs, and promotility drugs) can be done. (An empiric trial of a drug is a trial that is not based on an understanding of the exact cause of the symptoms)

If all of the appropriate testing reveals no disease that could be causing the symptoms and the dyspeptic symptoms have not responded to empiric treatments, other, more specialized tests should be considered. These tests include hydrogen breath testing to diagnose bacterial overgrowth of the small intestine, gastric emptying studies, EGG, small intestinal transit studies, antro-duodenal motility and barostatic studies, and possibly capsule endoscopy. These specialized studies probably should be done at centers that have experience and expertise in diagnosing and treating functional diseases.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/28/2016
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