Every organ in the human body is covered with a protective membrane which acts as a barrier which when gets damaged impedes the normal functionality of the organs. This results into a medical condition known as a peptic ulcer or simply an ulcer. Peptic ulcer can happen on the gastrointestinal tract which stretches down from the throat to the intestine of the body. When the ulcer breaks the inner lining of the esophagus then it is called the esophageal ulcer.
Stress is one of the main reasons for ulcer or spicy food burns holes in the stomach or ulcers are incurable and last throughout one's life – are some of the myths and have no significant connections with ulcers whatsoever. There are two major reasons for the occurrence of an ulcer. The leading cause of ulcer disease is a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) which damages the protective mucosal membrane of the areas within the gastrointestinal tract. This breakage in the wall makes the acidic digestive fluids to injure and inflame the lining and walls of the gut. The other reason for the disease is the high exposure of the body to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like aspirin and ibuprofen that can lead to side effects of damaging the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. Certain osteoporosis medications can also impact the linings of the gastrointestinal tract resulting into esophageal ulcers.
What is Esophageal Ulcer?
Esophagus, commonly known as the food pipe is the organ through which the food passes from the pharynx to the stomach. The walls of the esophagus mucosa which secrete mucus help in the smooth flow of food through the pipe. These walls might get irritated or eroded by the series of acid secreted by the stomach walls. There are circumstances when the stomach acid may enter into the lower part of the esophagus, thus damaging the walls there. Rapid forceful contraction of the stomach walls can also pull back the acidic stomach contents to the esophagus. This might result in the formation of an esophageal ulcer. As the condition of inflammation progresses, this can result into fibrosis and stricture formation. This subsequently narrows down the walls of esophagus which makes the movement of food through the esophagus very difficult. Based on the causative factor of the esophageal tissue damage and esophagitis (inflammation of esophagus), it might lead to esophageal cancer if the condition worsens.
Signs and Symptoms of Esophageal Ulcer
Whenever a person is facing any difficulty in swallowing food, it can be considered as the very first symptom of esophageal ulcer. Along with that the person could be experiencing the following symptoms related to esophageal ulcer:
- Dizziness or nausea
- Loss of appetite
- Vomiting, may be accompanied by blood
- Burning sensation in the chest
- Difficulty and painful swallowing
- Sudden weight loss
- Abdominal pain
- Sore throat
- Shortness of breath
- Mild fever, headache and muscle pain.
Causes of Esophageal Ulcer
The bottom of the esophagus has a valve known as the lower esophageal sphincter. The valve is generally closed which prevents the stomach acid from flowing back to the esophagus. Whenever the food passes through the food pipe and reaches the stomach, this valve relaxes so that the food rushes into the stomach. During the repeated inflammation of the mucous walls, the valve might get weakened. This might result in the leak of the acid into the food pipe that triggers a burning sensation in the chest. This medical condition is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Cigarette smoking damages the lower esophageal sphincter thus, allowing more acid to damage the walls of the esophagus.
GERD is the most common cause of the esophageal ulcers. However, other bacterial or fungal infections in the esophagus leading to vomiting can also be a reason for esophageal ulcers. Consumption of alcohol can also cause or worsen ulcerations. The following foods and beverages are known to trigger heartburn in people thus, causing inflammation to the walls of the esophagus:
- Beverages containing alcohol
- Black pepper
- Fried or spicy food
- Tomato Ketchup
- Soft drinks
Diagnosis of Esophageal Ulcer
Diagnosis of esophageal ulcers is done mostly based on the symptom. Reports of Imaging tests like X-ray and CT scan and certain minimally invasive diagnostic tests like Endoscopy help to get a better understanding of the condition.
Treatment of Esophageal Ulcer
Treatment of esophageal ulcer is not very different than treating peptic ulcer. Once suspected, the person must consult a doctor. Generally, the treatment is initiated with a diagnosis done through barium X-ray or endoscopy. If the situation is complicated like ulcers including bleeding and perforation, the patient is then treated using antibiotics to eradicate H. pylori, eliminating risk factors. Antibiotics might be given along with acid suppressing drugs like Omeprazole (Prilosec), Lansoprazole (Prevacid), Rabeprazole (Aciphex), Esomeprazole (Nexium) and Pantoprazole (Protonix) to reduce the acid formation by the stomach walls. Antacids like Histamine (H-2) blockers are also used to neutralize the stomach acid released into your digestive tract, which gives relief from ulcer pain and promotes healing.
The above listed medication will allow the ulcer to heal. However, chronic GERD might not be cured so easily and the continuous stomach-acid secretion interferes with the healing process of the esophagus. To prevent the esophagus from further getting exposed to acid, additional agents like sucralfate can be used to bind to the site of an ulcer thus, protecting the ulcer. This helps in quick and effective healing of the ulcer.
Along with the above mentioned medications, some lifestyle changes can also help the person to deal with the effects of esophageal ulcer. The following changes can provide relief from heartburn:
- Keeping the weight under check
- Wearing loose clothing
- Avoiding food that can trigger the stomach walls to churn and create acid
- Small meals throughout the day
- Not lying down immediately after a meal
- No Smoking.
How Long Does Esophageal Ulcer Take to Heal?
Esophageal ulcers are very sensitive to even small amounts of acid compared to gastric and duodenal ulcers. Complete healing of the esophageal ulcer depends on the immunity of a person and how effectively the body is responding to the medicines and treatment. The doctors continuously prescribe proton-pump inhibitors to suppress and regulate the production of stomach acid. The healing process of the esophageal ulcer is very slow. It depends on how the patient is taking care of all the do's and don'ts once the treatment has started. Esophageal ulcer is a disease which can be cured only if the esophagus walls are restricted from the exposure of the acids formed by the stomach. The walls shouldn't be at all allowed to get exposed to the stomach acids as they tend to over-write the treatment that is going on. Even though there are a lot medicines in the market for esophageal ulcer but it's very important that the patient follows all the advices of the physician in order to heal the esophageal ulcer faster as well as spend a normal ulcer free life.
Diet for Esophageal Ulcer
Although, there is no strict diet for esophageal ulcer but one should have food which minimizes the acid reflux in the body and this might be helpful to manage the symptoms. One should always consult a doctor when in doubt about planning the diet if suffering from esophageal ulcer. Researches show that a high fiber diet can help in prevention of esophageal ulcers. A very high fiber content diet decreases the possibility of getting infected from esophageal ulcer tremendously. Foods that have a very high content of soluble fiber include oats, legumes, barley, flax seeds, nuts, and some vegetables and fruits, like apples, oranges and carrots help in prevention of inflammation of the gastric tract.
Research has shown that Vitamin A promotes the secretion of mucus inside the gastrointestinal tract. Impaired defense of the mucosal membrane help the ulcers to grow. Hence, vitamin A may help in protecting the esophagus from developing ulcer disease. The good sources of Vitamin A include carrots, sweet potatoes, liver, broccoli, spinach, kale and collard greens.
Esophageal ulcer is a disease that impacts the food pipe of the body, thus disturbing the flow of food through the gastrointestinal tract causing burning sensations in the chest. As a deterrent to the disease, one must stop consuming any food or beverage that fastens up the acid formation inside the stomach walls. Other than food, one should also adopt a healthy way of life and avoid smoking and drinking as they act as the main agents to irritate and disturb the mucous walls. Consulting a doctor right away is very important whenever any of the symptoms like difficulty in swallowing, burning sensation in chest or loss of appetite occur. If ulcers remain untreated, they can further lead to cancers which become way more difficult to treat with time and can at times be life-threatening.