Peptic ulcers are open sores that develop on the inside lining of the esophagus, stomach, and the upper portion of the small intestine. The most common symptom of a peptic ulcer is burning pain that can be felt anywhere from the navel up to the breastbone, and can be worse on an empty stomach or at night and can disappear then return for a few days or weeks. This pain is caused by the ulcer, and is aggravated by stomach acid coming into contact with it. Less common symptoms may include dark blood in stools or stools that are black or tarry, nausea or vomiting, unexplained weight loss, and appetite changes.
Peptic ulcers occur when the acid in the digestive tract eats away at the inner surface of the upper digestive tract, from the esophagus to the small intestine. The acid can create a painful open sore that may bleed. The digestive tract is coated with a mucous layer that normally protects against acid. But if this balance is disrupted, either by an increase in the amount of acid or a decrease in the amount of mucus, an ulcer can develop. Left untreated, peptic ulcers can lead to internal bleeding, infection of the abdominal cavity (peritonitis) and scar tissue that can interfere with the functioning of the digestive tract.
Ulcers can be due to a variety of causes, including a bacterial infection in the digestive tract and frequent or regular use of pain relievers or prescription medications that irritate or inflame the lining of the digestive tract. Other factors that contribute to ulcers are smoking, drinking alcohol, and stress.
Western medical treatment for peptic ulcers typically involves antibiotics along with medications to reduce the level of acid in the digestive system to relieve pain and encourage healing. A switch in medications may be needed if they are contributing to the ulcer.
In Chinese medicine (TCM), peptic ulcers are considered a type of epigastric pain. Internal imbalances in the stomach or liver organs are typically at the root of this. The accompanying symptoms, such as the nature and time of pain, thirst, nausea, taste in the mouth, and feelings of distention or fullness, will point towards the underlying imbalance that is causing the ulcer, and direct the acupuncturist towards the appropriate treatment. This in turn makes acupuncture a very effective tool in the treatment of ulcers. In fact, acupuncture can give excellent results in the treatment of epigastric pain, relieving pain and promoting healing of the ulcer. Acupuncture also works to strengthen the digestive system and encourage its healthy functioning. This makes the stomach less susceptible to digestive disturbances such as ulcers.
A number of factors contribute to ulcers and knowing these can help with the prevention. External factors such as exposure to cold and dampness can play a role, and diet is of course also very important, as poor eating habits can weaken the health of our digestive system and make it more prone to disorders. This can include not only the foods we eat, but also how much we eat (over-eating, under-eating, or eating irregular amounts throughout the day), eating too fast or eating on the run, eating late in the day, eating when emotionally upset, or going back to work too quickly after work. Another contributing factor is our emotions- not only stress but also anger, frustration, worry and over-thinking. Finally, our genes also play a role, as we are all born with our own set of strengths and weaknesses. Knowing these weaknesses means that we can adjust our habits accordingly to prevent problems down the road and promote optimal health.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, downtown Kelowna.