Stomach ulcers, or peptic ulcers, are sores in the lining of the stomach or the top part of the small intestine. Stomach ulcer pain often occurs in the upper part of the abdomen.

Experts estimate that peptic ulcers affect around 1–6% of the population in the United States. The word “peptic” refers to digestion and the enzyme pepsin, while “ulcer” refers to a break in the lining of an organ, on the skin, or on the surface of a tissue.

Peptic ulcer pain typically occurs in the upper abdomen. A person may also experience symptoms such as:

Left untreated, stomach ulcers can lead to complications, such as bleeding, infections, or a hole in the stomach. A person should consider speaking with a doctor if they experience symptoms that may suggest they have a stomach ulcer.

This article discusses the location of stomach ulcer pain and possible stomach ulcer causes, treatments, and prevention strategies.

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Doctors classify the two most common types of peptic ulcers based on their location within the digestive tract. Gastric ulcers occur in the lining of the stomach, and duodenal ulcers occur toward the start of the small intestine, or the duodenum. It is possible for a person to have both types of ulcers at the same time.

A person may experience pain as a symptom of their ulcer. The pain usually occurs in the upper abdomen, or between the sternum and the belly. It may be dull or sharp and come and go over time. During a physical exam, a person may notice tenderness when a healthcare professional places pressure on their abdomen.

Some people may notice that their pain improves after eating, while others find that their symptoms worsen with food. Others may notice that their pain worsens at night.

The pain and other symptoms associated with stomach ulcers are nonspecific. This means that any number of gastrointestinal issues may cause them. Therefore, a person should speak with a doctor who can determine whether stomach ulcers or another condition is causing the pain.

Learn more about gastric and duodenal ulcers here.

There are several potential causes of stomach ulcers. The two most common causes are Helicobacter pylori infection and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). A doctor may test a person for the presence of an H. pylori infection and ask about their use of NSAIDs.

Other less common causes of stomach ulcers may include:

These causes share two things in common. First, they promote the breakdown of the mucosal barrier, which protects the stomach lining. Second, they expose the mucosal barrier to the damaging effects of stomach acid.

Despite popular belief, a person cannot create an ulcer by experiencing emotional stress or eating spicy foods. However, spicy or acidic foods may aggravate an existing ulcer and cause additional pain or discomfort.

Treatment for ulcers will vary depending on the underlying cause of the ulcer.

If NSAIDs caused the ulcer to form, a doctor may recommend that a person stop using NSAIDs and switch to a different medication, if needed.

If H. pylori infection is the underlying cause, a person will need to complete a full course of antibiotics.

To treat the ulcer itself, a doctor will typically recommend taking a proton pump inhibitor (PPI). A person will need to eat a meal within 30–60 minutes after taking a PPI to activate the medication.

If the ulcer is bleeding, a doctor may treat the bleeding during an esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD) procedure. Treatments for bleeding may include:

  • injecting medications
  • placing a small clip to clamp off a bleeding vessel
  • using a catheter to burn the bleeding ulcer shut

A doctor may perform a follow-up EGD a few weeks after the start of treatment to check that the ulcer has cleared. They may also perform a blood test to check that any H. pylori infection has cleared.

Finally, a doctor will take steps to treat any complications associated with the ulcer. This may include an EGD or surgical intervention.

A person may be able to prevent peptic ulcers. Some changes a person can make that may help prevent stomach ulcers from forming include:

  • stopping smoking
  • changing or stopping the use of NSAIDs with a doctor’s guidance
  • testing for and treating H. pylori infections before they cause an ulcer
  • taking PPIs alongside NSAIDs

People should consult with a healthcare professional for further advice before combining, stopping, or changing any medications they are taking.

Stomach ulcer pain typically occurs in the upper abdomen. Other symptoms, such as nausea or bloating, may also accompany the pain. Stomach ulcers can lead to complications and bleeding when left untreated.

Treatments for stomach ulcers often involve treating underlying infections, stopping the use of NSAIDs, and taking PPIs. A person may be able to prevent ulcers from forming by testing for and treating H. pylori early or by changing or stopping any NSAIDs they are taking.

A person should speak with a doctor for further information about stomach ulcer pain.