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What treatments relieve and cure indigestion (dyspepsia)?

The treatment of indigestion is a difficult and unsatisfying topic because so few drugs have been studied and have been shown to be effective. Moreover, the drugs that have been shown to be effective have not been shown to be very effective. This difficult situation exists for many reasons including:

  • Life-threatening illnesses (for example, cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure) are the illnesses that capture the public's interest and, more importantly, research funding. Indigestion is not a life-threatening illness and has received little research funding. Because of the lack of research, an understanding of the physiologic processes (mechanisms) that are responsible for indigestion has been slow to develop. Effective drugs cannot be developed until there is an understanding of these mechanisms.
  • Research in indigestion is difficult. Indigestion is defined by subjective symptoms (such as pain) rather than objective signs (for example, the presence of an ulcer). Subjective symptoms are more unreliable than objective signs in identifying homogenous groups of patients. As a result, groups of patients with indigestion who are undergoing treatment are likely to contain some patients who do not have indigestion, which may dilute (negatively affect) the results of the treatment. Moreover, the results of treatment must be evaluated on the basis of subjective responses (such as improvement of pain). In addition to being more unreliable, subjective responses are more difficult to measure than objective responses (for example, healing of an ulcer).
  • Different subtypes of indigestion (for example, abdominal pain and abdominal bloating) are likely to be caused by different physiologic processes (mechanisms). It also is possible, however, that the same subtype of indigestion may be caused by different mechanisms in different people. What's more, any drug is likely to affect only one mechanism. Therefore, it is unlikely that any one medication can be effective in all-even most-patients with indigestion, even patients with similar symptoms. This inconsistent effectiveness makes the testing of drugs particularly difficult. Indeed, it can easily result in drug trials that demonstrate no efficacy (usefulness) when, in fact, the drug is helping a subgroup of patients.
  • Subjective symptoms are particularly prone to responding to placebos (inactive drugs). In fact, in most studies, 20% to 40% of patients with indigestion will improve if they receive placebo drugs. Now, all clinical trials of drugs for indigestion require a placebo-treated group for comparison with the drug-treated group. The large placebo response means that these clinical trials must utilize large numbers of patients to detect meaningful (significant) differences in improvement between the placebo and drug groups. Therefore, these trials are expensive to conduct.

The lack of understanding of the physiologic processes (mechanisms) that cause indigestion has meant that treatment usually cannot be directed at the mechanisms. Instead, treatment usually is directed at the symptoms. For example, nausea is treated with medications that suppress nausea but do not affect the cause of the nausea. On the other hand, the psychotropic drugs (antidepressants) and psychological treatments (such as cognitive behavioral therapy) treat hypothetical causes of indigestion (for example, abnormal function of sensory nerves and the psyche) rather than causes or even the symptoms. Treatment for indigestion often is similar to that for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) even though the causes of IBS and indigestion are likely to be different.

Education

It is important to educate patients with indigestion about their illness, particularly by reassuring them that the illness is not a serious threat to their physical health (though it may be to their emotional health). Patients need to understand the potential causes for the symptoms. Most importantly, they need to understand the medical approach to the problem and the reasons for each test or treatment. Education prepares patients for a potentially prolonged course of diagnosis and trials of treatment. Education also may prevent patients from falling prey to the charlatans who offer unproven and possibly dangerous treatments for indigestion. Many symptoms are tolerable if patients' anxieties about the seriousness of their symptoms can be relieved. It also helps patients deal with symptoms when they feel that everything that should be done to diagnose and treat, in fact, is being done. The truth is that psychologically healthy people can tolerate a good deal of discomfort and continue to lead happy and productive lives.

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