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What are the symptoms of peptic ulcer?
Symptoms of ulcer disease are variable. Many ulcer patients experience minimal indigestion, abdominal discomfort that occurs after meals, or no discomfort at all. Some complain of upper abdominal burning or hunger pain one to three hours after meals or in the middle of the night. These symptoms often are promptly relieved by food or antacids that neutralize stomach acid. The pain of ulcer disease correlates poorly with the presence or severity of active ulceration. Some patients have persistent pain even after an ulcer is almost completely healed by medication. Others experience no pain at all. Ulcers often come and go spontaneously without the individual ever knowing that they are present unless a serious complication (like bleeding or perforation) occurs.
How are peptic ulcers diagnosed?
The diagnosis of an ulcer is made by either a barium upper gastrointestinal X-ray (upper GI series) or an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy (EGD or esophagogastroduodenoscopy). The barium upper gastrointestinal (GI) X-ray is easy to perform and involves no risk (other than exposure to radiation) or discomfort. Barium is a chalky substance that is swallowed. It is visible on X- rays, and allows the outline of the stomach to be seen on X-rays; however, barium X-rays are less accurate and may miss ulcers up to 20% of the time.
An upper gastrointestinal endoscopy is more accurate than X-rays, but usually involves sedation of the patient and the insertion of a flexible tube through the mouth to inspect the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. Upper endoscopy has the added advantage of having the capability of removing small tissue samples (biopsies) to test for H. pylori infection. Biopsies are also examined under a microscope to exclude a cancerous ulcer. While virtually all duodenal ulcers are benign, gastric ulcers can occasionally be cancerous. Therefore, biopsies often are performed on gastric ulcers to exclude cancer.