Complications from ulcers can lead to surgery.
While many people know ulcers can cause pain, most people don't think of ulcer complications as a serious threat to their health. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, ulcer-related complications kill about 6,000 people every year.
Most ulcer complications occur when people fail to get medical treatment for the condition. People who suspect they have an ulcer should talk with a doctor as soon as possible.
Complications from ulcers can result in internal bleeding and peritonitis. They can also affect the digestive system. In some cases, ulcer complications impede a person's ability to eat. When ulcer complications delay healing, the solution may be surgery.
An ulcer is an open wound in the lining of the digestive tract. Left untreated, ulcers allow stomach acid and pepsin, a digestive enzyme, to eat away at the lining and enter the stomach wall or the duodenal (beginning of the lower intestine) wall. Stomach acid and digestive enzymes may cause damage to the blood vessels located in the wall, leading to internal bleeding. The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse lists ulcers as one of the main causes for internal bleeding in the stomach and small intestine.
Internal bleeding symptoms typically appear in the stool or in vomit. To diagnose internal bleeding, a doctor performs tests to find the location of the bleeding. Once doctors locate the source of the bleeding, they will use endoscopic techniques or surgery to correct the problem.
Peritonitis is similar to internal bleeding. However, instead of damaging the blood vessels, stomach acid or digestive enzymes leak through a wall in the stomach or small intestine and enter the abdominal cavity. In some cases, partially digested food may also pass through the hole.
The intrusion leads to an infection of the abdominal cavity and swelling. Once an infection sets in, it can spread to the rest of the body and become life threatening. Doctors usually treat peritonitis with antibiotics or surgery.
Symptoms for peritonitis include:
Ulcers in the esophagus can make swallowing painful. Ulcers located in the small intestine, called duodenal ulcers, may cause the area to swell. Another complication is the development of scar tissue, which can prevent digested food from entering the small intestine. In some cases, the opening to the intestine narrows instead of becoming blocked.
These complications may impede the ability to eat, cause an uncomfortable feeling of fullness or induce vomiting. Left untreated, a person may lose weight. Depending on the amount of weight loss, the complications may become life threatening.
In many cases, acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) contribute to the development of ulcers. A report from the University of Maryland Medical Center indicates that using antibiotics to kill Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), the bacterium that causes ulcers, may lead to an onset of GERD.
According to the Nemours Foundation, H. pylori bacteria occur in almost 2 out of every 10 people under the age of 40, but not all people with H. pylori develop ulcers. It appears that in some people, the presence of H. pylori reduces the amount of stomach acid and helps prevent GERD. In this type of situation, killing the H. pylori allows the stomach acid to build up to a higher volume, which can trigger GERD. Currently, researchers need to conduct more studies between the relationship of GERD and ulcers.
Cancer of the stomach, also called gastric cancer, is another ulcer complication. According to the National Cancer Institute, there were 22,280 new cases of in 2006. There are two types of stomach cancer, but only one shows a correlation to H. pylori.
In 1994, the International Agency for Research on Cancer listed H. pylori as a cancer-causing agent, known as a carcinogen. The National Cancer Institute recognizes that infection from H. pylori plays a role in the development of noncardia gastric cancer. This type of cancer affects all the parts of the stomach except the top inch of the stomach where it meets the esophagus.
Research indicates H. pylori may play a role in the development of other cancers including pancreatic cancer and MALT lymphoma. These studies are not as conclusive as ones linking H. pylori to noncardia gastric cancer. Deaths related to gastric cancer are not included in the statistic of deaths related to ulcer complications.