Peptic Ulcer

Peptic ulcers develop in the stomach or duodenum. In the stomach they are known as gastric ulcers and in the duodenum as duodenal ulcers. An ulcer is an open sore in the lining of the stomach or duodenum, where the protective lining has worn or eroded away. This is made worse by the acid secretions in the stomach, which are there to aid digestion of food. Ulcers can also form in the oesophagus, when acidic juice from the stomach enters it.

Peptic ulcers occur in about 10% of the population, are more common in men and may also have an inherited factor. It is now known that the vast majority of peptic ulcers are caused by a bacterium called Helicobacter Pylori (HP). This is particularly the case with duodenal ulcers. Helicobacter is spread by being in close contact with other people (e.g. between family members). H. Pylori bacteria can damage the lining of the stomach and duodenum, allowing the acid stomach contents to attack it. The long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), smoking, alcohol consumption, and excess acid production can also damage the stomach lining. A stress ulcer is a peptic ulcer caused by severe physiological stress, such as that due to neurosurgery or to burns (for example, a Curling’s ulcer). Psychological stress is thought to aggravate an existing ulcer.

The presence of Helicobacter pylori used to require diagnosis by a medical specialist but can now be diagnosed with a blood test. HP is easy to treat with a combination of antibiotics and a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) – known as triple therapy.

Symptoms

There may be no symptoms, or there may be burning or gnawing pain in the upper abdomen when the stomach is empty. The pain of a duodenal ulcer is often relieved by eating, but usually recurs a few hours later. The pain of a gastric ulcer may be worsened by food. Other possible symptoms of a peptic ulcer include a loss of appetite, a bloated or full feeling in the abdomen, nausea, and, sometimes, vomiting. The pain may be worse at night.

Complications

The most common complication of a peptic ulcer is bleeding as the ulcer penetrates deeper and damages blood vessels. If severe, bleeding may result in haematemesis (vomiting of blood) and melaena (black faeces) and is a medical emergency. Chronic bleeding may cause iron-deficiency anaemia. Rarely, an ulcer may perforate the wall of the digestive tract and lead to peritonitis (inflammation of the abdominal cavity’s lining).

Peptic ulcers and diet in brief

Read a non-technical article here: Digestive ulcers

Peptic ulcer disease in detail - technical

Essentials

Helicobacter pylori infection and the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) including aspirin are the most important causes of peptic ulcer disease. Cigarette smoking also increases the risk, but—although often alleged—there is little evidence to implicate psychological stress. Zollinger–Ellison syndrome, which consists of a gastrin-secreting islet cell tumour (gastrinoma) leading to marked hypergastrinemia, is a rare cause of recurrent peptic ulceration.

Peptic ulcer disease is characterized by a history of waxing and waning symptoms of localized, dull, aching pain in the upper abdomen. Bleeding is the most common complication. Free perforation of the stomach or duodenum into the peritoneal cavity is an uncommon but serious complication.

The diagnosis of peptic ulcer disease is made by endoscopy, which can (1) confirm the diagnosis of peptic ulcer; (2) offer an opportunity for biopsy of gastric ulcers, which may be malignant; and (3) reveal important prognostic indicators in patients with bleeding ulcers (Forrest classification: grade I ulcers are those with active bleeding; grade II have signs of recent bleeding; grade III have a clean base).

A single daily dose of a proton pump inhibitor gives quick relief of symptom and effective healing of peptic ulcers in 4 to 6 weeks. These drugs are more effective than misoprostol and H2-receptor antagonists in healing ulcers, as well as in preventing further peptic ulcerations and erosions.

The management of patients with upper gastrointestinal haemorrhage requires a multidisciplinary medical and surgical approach. Upper gastrointestinal bleeding stops spontaneously in about 80 to 85% of patients, but the remaining 15 to 20% continue to bleed or develop recurrent bleeding, and these patients constitute a high-risk group with substantially increased morbidity and mortality. Early risk stratification based on clinical and endoscopic criteria allows delivery of appropriate care, with endoscopic intervention (endoscopic injection, thermal coagulation, or mechanical haemostasis, i.e. clipping or banding) now widely accepted as the first line of therapy. This should be applied to actively bleeding ulcers or ulcers covered with an adherent clot to reduce both recurrent bleeding and the need for surgical intervention, and be followed by administration of a high dose of intravenous proton pump inhibitor to further reduce recurrent bleeding.

Treatment of H. pylori is a cure for peptic ulcer disease in most patients with the condition. Many antimicrobials can be effective, but successful cure usually requires at least two antimicrobial agents, with the most popular triple therapy combining a proton pump inhibitor with any two of amoxicillin, metronidazole, and clarithromycin for 7 to 14 days. Eradication of H. pylori can be confirmed by either urea breath test, stool antigen test, or biopsy urease test, which should be done at least 4 weeks after finishing the anti-helicobacter regimen and discontinuation of the proton pump inhibitor for at least 2 weeks.

Eradication of H. pylori infection, avoidance of high-dose NSAIDs or aspirin, and the maintenance use of proton pump inhibitors in high-risk individuals are the best ways to prevent recurrence of ulcer and ulcer complications.

Introduction

Peptic ulcer is defined as a distinct breach in the mucosa of the gastrointestinal tract as a result of caustic effects of acid and pepsin in the lumen. The term ‘peptic ulcer disease’ usually refers to ulceration of the stomach, duodenum, or both but it can also occur in the oesophagus in gastro-oesophageal reflux disease and in the distal ileum as a result of a Meckel’s diverticulum lined with an acid-secreting gastric epithelium. Histologically, peptic ulcer is identified as necrosis of the mucosa extending through the muscularis mucosae into the submucosa. In the endoscopic or radiological view, there is an appreciable depth of the lesion. When the break of epithelial lining is confined to the mucosa without penetrating through the muscularis mucosae, the superficial lesion is called ‘erosion’.

For more than a century, peptic ulcer disease has been a major cause of morbidity and mortality. The Schwarz dictum introduced in 1910 says ‘no acid, no ulcer’, indicating that the presence of acid is essential for peptic ulceration. Indeed, peptic ulcers rarely develop in patients with achlorhydria. Thus the therapy has always been focused on acid neutralization or suppression of acid secretion. The discovery of Helicobacter pylori in the highly acidic environment by Marshall and Warren in 1984 has revolutionized the concept of ulcerogenesis. In many cases, peptic ulcer disease is an infectious disease which can be cured by a single course of antimicrobial therapy. In recent decades, however, there has been a rapid change in the epidemiology of peptic ulcer disease. With the improvement in sanitary conditions in many countries, there has been a dramatic decline in H. pylori infection and hence the associated peptic disease in the stomach and duodenum. On the other hand, with the increasing use of aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), a new epidemic of peptic ulcer disease and complications has arisen. Our understanding of peptic ulcer disease is not complete. With the decline of H. pylori infection, peptic ulcers emerge that are not related either to H. pylori or to NSAIDs.

Aetiology, pathogenesis, and pathology

Gastric acid and pepsin

Despite the importance of H. pylori infection and ulcerogenic drugs such as NSAIDs and aspirin as the initiating events in the development of peptic ulcer disease, gastric acid and pepsin remain the ultimate injurious factors in the development of peptic ulcers. Ulceration is a result of an imbalance between the damaging effects of acid and pepsin and the defensive effects of bicarbonate and mucin on the mucosal surface. Factors that may account for increased secretion of acid and pepsin include increased parietal cell mass, increased stimulation of acid secretion (e.g. gastrin), increased parietal cell sensitivity to stimuli, and attenuated inhibition of acid secretion (e.g. somatomedin). Patients with peptic ulcer disease often have higher parietal cell mass, leading to increased basal and nocturnal unstimulated acid output as well as peak acid output under stimulation by food and gastrin. Several of these abnormal physiological responses are probably related to H. pylori infection (hypersecretion of gastrin, raised basal and gastrin-releasing peptide-stimulated acid output, decreased inhibitory drive mediated by somatostatin and hypersecretion of pepsinogen) as they disappear after successful cure of H. pylori infection. It is known that even peptic ulcer disease induced by NSAIDs or aspirin is an acid-dependent process. In the low secretory state, NSAID and aspirin exposure are less likely to induce peptic ulcer in the upper gastrointestinal tract.

With high exposure to gastric acid, epithelium of the duodenal bulb develops gastric metaplasia. Wyatt and colleagues postulated that gastric metaplasia is essential for the colonization of H. pylori in the duodenum and subsequent development of duodenal ulceration. H. pylori is found colonizing only part of the duodenum with gastric metaplasia, setting off duodenitis and eventually duodenal ulcer. However, the data for the correlation of intragastric pH with occurrence of gastric metaplasia in the duodenum are inconsistent.

Duodenal bicarbonate secretion

Patients with duodenal ulcer are found to have impaired bicarbonate secretion in the proximal duodenum in face of influx of gastric acid. This impaired response is reversed by the eradication of H. pylori. The mechanism by which H. pylori hampers duodenal bicarbonate secretion is not understood. One proposed mechanism is that nitric oxide synthase activity in the duodenum interferes with bicarbonate secretion.

Helicobacter pylori

Since the discovery of H. pylori in the stomach of patients with gastritis and peptic ulcer, this bacteria has been reported in approximately 90% of cases of duodenal ulcer and 60% of cases of gastric ulcer. H. pylori is a slow-growing, microaerophilic, highly motile, Gram-negative spiral organism aetiologically linked to gastritis, peptic ulcer disease, gastric lymphoma, and adenocarcinoma of the stomach. H. pylori infection has a long latent period before symptomatic disease appears. H. pylori is tropic for gastric epithelium (i.e. stomach and areas of gastric metaplasia outside the stomach) and is found either attaching to the surface epithelium through a pedestal or dwelling within the mucous coating on the surface of gastric epithelium. A very small proportion of organisms can be found intracellularly, but the significance of this in relation to the inflammatory response and evasion of antimicrobial therapy is still under investigation. H. pylori infection elicits robust chronic active inflammatory and immune responses that continue throughout life. H. pylori produces abundant amount of urease, which is important for its colonization and survival in the stomach.

H. pylori infection is primarily acquired in childhood, such that the prevalence at the age of 20 approximates the prevalence of that birth cohort throughout life. Acquisition during adulthood is rare, with estimates ranging from 0.3 to 0.5% per year, and recurrence of infection after successful eradication is therefore uncommon. The primary mode of transmission is person to person, probably via a gastro-oral route (through vomitus) or oro-oral route (through contamination of saliva). There are links between the bacterial genotype, its virulence factor, and the development of gastroduodenal disease. CagA, a 120- to 140-kDa highly antigenic protein, is encoded by the cagA gene as part of the cag pathogenicity island. In Western countries 60 to 80% of H. pylori express CagA, compared to 90% of isolates from Asian patients. The presence of the cag pathogenicity island is associated with a more prominent inflammatory tissue response than is seen with strains lacking this virulence factor. This increase in inflammation is associated with an increased risk of developing of peptic ulcer disease and adenocarcinoma of the stomach. The cag pathogenicity island encodes a type IV secretory apparatus that injects CagA and possibly other bacterial proteins into mammalian cells. CagA undergoes phosphorylation in the cell and is responsible for the changes in actin polymerization seen in the infected cell, resulting in conformational change. Besides cytoskeletal changes, CagA also enhances inflammatory response which is mediated through NF-κB. Attachment of H. pylori to the cell is required for cagA-positive H. pylori to elicit an interleukin-8 (IL-8) response in the gastrointestinal epithelium triggering gastritis. Beside CagA, approximately 50% of H. pylori strains produce a protein that induces vacuole formation in eukaryotic cells. This protein, which is called VacA, has been purified and the gene vacA has bee cloned. The vacA gene has two families of alleles of the middle region (m1, m2) and at least three families of alleles of the signal sequence (s1a, s1b, s2). The vacA genotype s1 is strongly, but not exclusively, associated with the cagA gene. So far, studies have not found an important role for VacA in relation to histological findings, or risk of H. pylori-related disease. The function of VacA remains unclear.

Despite the establishment of a strong association between H. pylori infection and peptic ulcer disease, it is still unclear why some patients develop duodenal ulcer and others gastric ulcer. McColl and El-Omar proposed an intriguing paradigm. In patients with duodenal ulcer, H. pylori colonizes mainly the antrum. The antral-predominant gastritis stimulates production of gastrin-releasing peptide, triggering secretion of gastrin leading to excessive output of gastric acid. Profuse amount of acid flooding in the duodenum leads to gastric metaplasia, which allows colonization of H. pylori in the duodenum. This sets up an intense inflammation in the duodenum, further weakening mucosal protection and eventually developing into duodenal ulcer. On the other hand, in patients with gastric ulcer, H. pylori is often found throughout the entire body of the stomach, leading to diffuse gastritis. The intense inflammation in the body of stomach tends to reduce gastric acid secretion as a result of glandular atrophy. In these patients other bacterial virulence factors come into play, leading to development of either gastric ulcer or adenocarcinoma in the distal stomach. Although this schema is probably oversimplified, it provides a broad-brush picture explaining how an infection can induce two distinctly different diseases.

The ultimate proof of causal relationship between H. pylori and peptic ulcer disease comes from interventional studies. If peptic ulcer disease is merely a result of altered gastric physiology in bacterial infection, eradication of H. pylori in the stomach and duodenum should rectify the physiological change and cure the disease. And, if re-infection with H. pylori is rare, peptic ulcer disease should not recur. Indeed, this has been proved in clinical trials. In a study that randomized duodenal ulcer patients to receive either 1-week bismuth triple therapy or bismuth triple therapy plus 4-week therapy with proton pump inhibitor, ulcers healed in 90 to 95% of cases with or without acid suppressive therapy. Similarly, when non-NSAID-related gastric ulcer was treated by 1-week bismuth triple therapy or 4-weeks proton pump inhibitor therapy, ulcer healing was higher with anti-Helicobacter therapy. More importantly, ulcer recurrence was much lower after patients received anti-Helicobacter therapy with successful eradication than with a full course of proton pump inhibitor. Studies have also shown that peptic ulcer bleeding and bowel perforation does not recur, obviating the need for acid-reduction surgery.

Ulcerogenic drugs

In the last three decades, NSAIDs and antiplatelet agents have become increasingly important as a cause of peptic ulcer disease. It has been estimated that NSAIDs and aspirin increase the risk of gastric ulcer fourfold and the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding threefold. The risk of drug-induced peptic ulcer is substantially higher in older people and those with previous history of peptic ulcer disease. Patients who are taking concomitant NSAIDs, aspirin, anticoagulants and corticosteroids are also exposed to a higher risk of peptic ulcer disease. H. pylori infection further increases the risk of peptic ulcer and ulcer complication in users of NSAIDs and aspirin.

Aspirin and acidic NSAIDs were initially believed to have only a topical injurious effect by direct damage to the gastric epithelium as a result of intracellular accumulation of these drugs in an ionized state. However, the fact that enteric-coated formulations, prodrugs, and systemic administration of NSAIDs fail to reduce the frequency of gastroduodenal ulceration implies that the chief mechanism of injury might not be a local action. NSAIDs reduce the hydrophobicity of mucous gel on the intestinal epithelium and this may hamper the defensive mechanism of the gut. The most important mechanism of drug-induced peptic ulcer disease is inhibition of prostaglandin synthesis by NSAIDs. Prostaglandins regulate mucosal blood flow, epithelial cell proliferation, and basal acid secretion as well as mucus and bicarbonate secretion. The rate-limiting enzyme in prostaglandin synthesis is cyclooxygenase (COX). Most NSAIDs are found to suppress prostaglandin synthesis via reversible inhibition of COX, but aspirin acetylates COX and inhibits its enzyme activity irreversibly in a dose-dependent manner. In the early 1990s two structurally related COX isoforms, COX-1 and COX-2, were identified. COX-1 is found in most of the body’s tissues, including the gastrointestinal tract and the kidney, and COX-2 is an inducible enzyme produced principally in inflammation. The discovery of these isoforms has prompted the development of COX-2 selective inhibitors as anti-inflammatory analgesics, with the aim of protecting against gastrointestinal damage. Yet this approach is an oversimplification, as evidence indicates that both COX-1 and COX-2 must be inhibited for gastric ulceration to occur. Selective suppression of COX-1 does not cause gastric damage. Clinical trials have shown that COX-2 selective inhibitors cause less peptic ulcer and ulcer bleeding than nonselective NSAIDs. Yet, in high-risk patients with a history of peptic ulcer disease, ulcer complication as a result of using COX-2 selective inhibitors is still a possibility.

Gastric acid exacerbates NSAID injury by disrupting the basement membrane to produce deep injury, impairing platelet aggregation and potentiating enzymatic erosion of pepsin. It is therefore logical that suppression of acid secretion by potent agents such as proton pump inhibitors can confer at least partially protection against injury induced by NSAIDs and aspirin.

More recently, attention has been focused on the role of nitric oxide in maintenance of intestinal mucosal blood flow. Like prostaglandins, nitric oxide has been shown to increase blood flow, stimulate mucin secretion, and inhibit neutrophil adherence. It may thus protect the gastroduodenal tract against injury by aspirin and NSAIDs. Nitric oxide-releasing NSAIDs have been developed and found to produce less gastric damage than their parent drugs.

Tobacco, alcohol, and stress

Cigarette smoking increases the risk of peptic ulcer diseases and their complications. As with NSAID usage, tobacco decreases prostaglandin production and inhibits acid-stimulated bicarbonate secretion in the duodenum. Increase in gastric acidity, reduction in epithelial cell proliferation, and impairment of mucosal blood flow have also been demonstrated with consumption of tobacco. Cigarette smokers are found to have slower healing of peptic ulcers and higher relapse rate of the disease. However, when H. pylori is eradicated, the effects of tobacco appear to be mitigated.

It is a misconception that alcohol as such increases the risk of peptic ulcer disease. There are no convincing data in the literature supporting this notion. Although high concentrations of alcohol can cause damage to mucosa in animal studies, normal drinks such as wine and beer do not contain a high enough concentration of alcohol to cause ulceration in the stomach and duodenum. However, peptic ulcer disease is more common in liver cirrhosis and alcohol consumption is certainly one of the most important underlying causes of this condition. The mechanism of peptic ulcer development in cirrhosis remains to be elusive.

Psychological stress has always been implicated in peptic ulcer disease but there is little scientific evidence to confirm the correlation. After all, stress is difficult to measure and its effects are hard to assess. Historical records during natural disasters (e.g. earthquakes and tsunami) and wars report an upsurge of peptic ulcer disease. During peacetime, however, stress seldom reaches high enough levels to lead to peptic ulcers. However, hospitalized patients with multiple illnesses and critical medical conditions can develop peptic ulcer and complications such as bleeding. Stress related to serious medical conditions and multiorgan failure is likely to produce peptic ulcer bleeding and the mortality of these patients has been estimated to be 10 times higher than for those without comorbid illnesses.

Other causes

Zollinger–Ellison syndrome consists of a gastrin-secreting islet cell tumour (gastrinoma) leading to marked hypergastrinemia, outpouring of gastric acid, and recurrent peptic ulceration. Most cases of Zollinger–Ellison syndrome are sporadic but some are associated with multiple endocrine neoplasia syndrome type I (MEN-1). As well as peptic ulcer disease, these patients may complain of diarrhoea, steatorrhoea, symptoms of gastro-oesophageal reflux, weight loss, and other presentations of MEN-1 (e.g. hypercalcaemia and renal stones). The diagnosis is confirmed by finding a markedly raised serum gastrin level stimulated by secretin and radiological identification of tumour in the pancreas.

Beside H. pylori, other infections such as cytomegalovirus or Helicobacter heilmannii may lead to peptic ulcer disease. H. heilmannii has been found to cause intense inflammation in the stomach and occasionally peptic ulcers, especially in children. Helicobacter felis, a species that usually infects dogs and cats, has also been reported to cause peptic ulcer in pet owners.

Crohn’s disease affects the whole gastrointestinal tract and may be a cause of peptic ulcer disease in the stomach, duodenum or even the oesophagus. With the rising incidence of Crohn’s disease in Asia, peptic ulcers related to it are more commonly seen.

Epidemiology

It is hard to follow the temporal trend and geographical variation of peptic ulcer disease as the condition may not manifest itself in clinical settings. From records of peptic ulcer perforation, it has been suggested that this disease was uncommon before the 19th century. Over the ensuing decades, the incidence of peptic ulcer disease escalated. By the end of the 19th century, duodenal ulcer frequency had surpassed gastric ulcer disease in frequency. The incidence of peptic ulceration rose dramatically throughout the first half of the 20th century, and then started to decline again in the second half of the century. Thus peptic ulcer disease appears to follow the trend of urbanization. The temporal trends of frequency of peptic ulcer disease are best studied by following birth cohorts. In Western countries and in Japan, the risk of developing peptic ulcer disease rose in birth cohorts born before the turn of 20th century and then declined in subsequent generations.

In addition to changes in the prevalence of peptic ulcer disease over time, there is also evidence that it shows geographical variations. For example, it is more common in Scotland and northern England than in southern England. Similarly, ulcers are more common in the south of India than in the north. Environmental factors are likely to play an important role in the development of peptic ulcer disease. Human-to-human transmission of H. pylori in urban dwellers, improvement of sanitation in recent decades, and increased consumption of tobacco and analgesics might be important factors affecting the changing epidemiology of the disease.

The incidence of bleeding resulting from peptic ulcer disease is much better documented than uncomplicated peptic ulcers. Based on the American Society of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy survey and two large United Kingdom audits made available in the 1990s, the reported incidence of gastrointestinal bleeding is approximately 100 per 100 000 population. The national United Kingdom audit was a population-based, prospective collection of data on 4185 cases in 74 acute hospitals over a 4-month period. Acute upper gastrointestinal bleeding is a disease primarily affecting the older age groups. In this audit, 68% of patients were older than 60 years and 27% were more than 80 years of age. In comparison with historic British series, a steady rise in the incidence over the last few decades was observed. The crude mortality rate increased from 9.9% in the 1940s to 11% in the 1990s. It is often argued that advances in the care of patients with upper gastrointestinal bleeding have been offset by an ageing population. There has also been a trend towards increasing hospital admissions among older subjects and a corresponding decline for younger patients, resulting in little change in the overall admission rate. Hospital statistics from the United Kingdom Office of National Statistics revealed that from 1989 to 1999, admission rates for peptic ulcer haemorrhage increased among older people. Over this period, admissions increased by one-third among older women and by almost 50% among older men.

The epidemiology of peptic ulcer disease has changed in the last two decades. With the declining prevalence of H. pylori infection in the developed countries, the proportion of patients with ulcers attributed to the use of aspirin and NSAIDs as well as H. pylori-negative ‘idiopathic’ ulcers is on the rise. However, there is evidence suggesting that between 20% and 40% of peptic ulcers in North America are not associated with H. pylori infection or the use of NSAIDs. Is there truly a rise in non-H. pylori, non-NSAID ulcer, or does this merely reflects the declining trend of the disease and therefore a proportionate rise in idiopathic ulcers? The existing evidence suggests that the prevalence of these idiopathic ulcers is probably increasing. Two prospective cohort studies in Hong Kong, each lasting 1 year, looked at idiopathic ulcers in 1997–1998 and 2000–2001. The total number of bleeding peptic ulcers was more than 1500. Comparing the two time periods, the total number of bleeding ulcers per year had decreased by 33.1% and the number of H. pylori-associated ulcers by over 30%. On the other hand, the absolute number of idiopathic ulcers increased 4.5-fold. Patients suffering from idiopathic ulcers are older and sicker, and the ulcers more frequently developed after patients had been admitted to hospital for other medical conditions. Up to one-half of idiopathic ulcer patients have major medical conditions such as advanced cardiopulmonary or liver disease. Ulcer recurrence is higher in patients with idiopathic ulcers than for H. pylori-associated ulcers treated with eradication therapy. Future studies should focus on unveiling the underlying cause of these ulcers.

Clinical features

Dyspepsia

Peptic ulcer disease is characterized by a history of waxing and waning symptoms of localized, dull, aching pain in the upper abdomen, which is called dyspepsia. Many patients notice that symptoms often worsen in winter. Eating spicy food and drinking coffee and tea may aggravate the symptoms, but these dietary habits do not lead directly to ulcer formation. Pain may occur sooner after meals in gastric ulcers than in duodenal ulcers, and is not necessarily relieved by food and antacids. The relationship between symptoms and eating is an unreliable predictor of peptic ulcer disease. Gastric ulcers are more often found in older patients, especially those taking NSAIDs or aspirin. Approximately 20% of complicated ulcers presents without dyspeptic symptoms. These ‘silent’ ulcers are more common in individuals consuming NSAIDs, owing to their analgesic effects. The lack of warning signs in these ulcers make them more dangerous.

Haemorrhage

Gastrointestinal bleeding is the most common complication associated with peptic ulcer disease. Vomiting of fresh blood, or haematemesis, indicates that bleeding originates from a site proximal to the suspensory muscle of the duodenum (ligament of Treitz). A history of fresh haematemesis usually implies a significant bleed and the patients may go into haemodynamic instability due to hypovolaemia. ‘Coffee ground’ vomiting, usually arising from altered black blood, often indicates that active bleeding may have ceased. Melaena is the passage of black tarry stool. It occurs when haemoglobin in the gut is converted to haematin by bacterial degradation. As little as 200 ml of bleeding inside the digestive tract can produce melaena. Although melaena generally connotes bleeding proximal to the suspensory muscle of the duodenum, bleeding from small bowel or proximal colon may also cause it, especially when colonic transit is slow. Haematochezia, passage of pure red blood or blood admixed with stool, occurs when bleeding comes from the lower gastrointestinal tract. It can also present in a massive upper gastrointestinal bleeding. When a substantial amount of blood is lost into the gastrointestinal lumen, pulses start to rise and blood pressure drops. The haemoglobin levels at this stage may not reflect the actual amount of blood loss before haemodilution sets in. A close monitoring of vital signs and estimation of volume of vomitus offer a better prognostic indicator of the severity of the illness.

Perforation

Free perforation of the stomach or duodenum into the peritoneal cavity is a rare but serious complication. It is more commonly found in older patients using aspirin or NSAIDs, leading to life-threatening catastrophe. The use of cocaine has also been related to peptic ulcer perforation. The classic presentation is a sudden onset of intense abdominal pain at the onset with gastric juice pouring into peritoneal cavity. This is followed a period of stabilization and amelioration of symptoms. Ulcer perforation may be concealed by the omentum. However, signs of peritonitis such as guarding and rebound tenderness persist. Bowel sounds are silent and liver dullness to percussion diminishes. A plain abdominal radiograph may demonstrate free gas between the upper border of the liver and the diaphragm and may also outline the serosal surfaces of the bowel wall. If prompt treatment is not provided, the patient will develop frank peritonitis and severe sepsis. Body temperature will rise and breathing becomes shallow. Leucocytosis and acidosis may appear at this stage.

Besides free perforation, peptic ulcer may also penetrate into adjacent organs such as the pancreas, the bile duct, or even the colon, resulting in pancreatitis or gastrobiliary or gastroenteric fistula. With prompt medical attention, these complications are rarely seen nowadays.

Obstruction

In patients with recurrent peptic ulceration at the prepyloric antrum, pylorus, and duodenal bulb, oedema and/or scarring of the tissue may lead to obstruction of the gastric outlet. Pyloric obstruction usually presents with bloating, early satiety, and vomiting. The patient may recognize food ingested several days ago in their vomitus. Weight loss may be profound and dehydration with electrolyte disturbance (metabolic alkalosis with acidic urine) is common. On examination of the abdomen, an audible splash of the gastric content can be demonstrated by shaking the patient’s abdomen (succusion splash). Aspiration of gastric content through a nasogastric tube will empty litres of fluid and undigested food from the stomach, giving quick relief for the patient. Obstruction due to acute peptic ulcer and tissue oedema usually resolve in a few weeks as the ulcer heals. On the other hand, severe scarring of the pylorus and duodenum leads to permanent gastric outflow obstruction and requires endoscopic or surgical treatment.

Differential diagnosis

Symptoms are neither sensitive nor specific for the diagnosis of peptic ulcer disease. A wide range of conditions ranging from functional dyspepsia to malignancy of the gastrointestinal tract can produce symptoms mimicking peptic ulcer disease. Pancreatitis and cholecystitis often produce more severe pain than peptic ulcer, so the differentiation may not be difficult. On the other hand, it is a disaster to miss a diagnosis of malignancy of the stomach, pancreas, or hepatobiliary tract. A high index of suspicion, especially in older patients with anorexia and weight loss, is needed to minimize the possibility of missing the diagnosis. In countries where the prevalence of gastric cancer is high, symptom of dyspepsia should be managed carefully.

Clinical investigation

With the advent of endoscopy, barium studies are less frequently used in the diagnosis of dyspepsia. Endoscopy serves three purposes in diagnosis and evaluation of the patients. First, it confirms the diagnosis of peptic ulcer disease by its morphology, location and, in case of gastric ulcer, offering an opportunity for biopsy. Endoscopic features of bleeding ulcers are important prognostic indicators. The presence of signs of recent bleeding in an ulcer confirms the source of bleeding.

The Forrest classification categorizes ulcers into those that are actively bleeding, show signs of recent bleeding, or simply have a clean base:

  • Forrest class I ulcers are actively bleeding, either spurting (Forrest class IA) or oozing (Forrest class IB).
  • Forrest class II ulcers show signs of recent bleeding including nonbleeding visible vessel (Forrest class IIA), adherent clots (Forrest class IIB), or flat pigmented spots (Forrest IIC).
  • Forrest III ulcers have a clean base. The risk of continuous or recurrent bleeding of these ulcers is related to their appearance.

An evolutionary scheme for the natural history of signs of haemorrhage for peptic ulcers has been proposed. Major bleeding from a peptic ulcer is arterial in origin. A sentinel clot (a term used synonymously with ‘visible vessel’) plugs the bleeding point. This can initially be contiguous with a larger overlying clot, which resolves in time. The clot may be variable in colour: initially it is red, but it darkens in time and subsequently the colour disappears leaving a plug of fibrin and platelets. Eventually the plug disappears, as the healing process is complete. Ulcers with an adherent clot or protuberant vessels have a 20 to 40% chance of recurrent bleeding without proper endoscopic or pharmacologic therapy. Endoscopic features, including the size and the site of bleeding ulcers, should be interpreted along with clinical factors. Ulcers at the lesser curve of the stomach or posterior duodenal bulb are a high risk because of their proximity to the left gastric artery and the gastroduodenal artery respectively.

Gastric outlet obstruction due to recurrent peptic ulcer disease may produce a pinhole pylorus and dilated stomach. The endoscope may not be able to pass through the area of obstruction, leading to difficulty in assessment. Radiological imaging such as contrast studies is useful in this situation.

Treatment

Treatment of peptic ulcer disease can be divided into two stages: (1) treatment of acute symptoms and complications such as pain and bleeding, and (2) treatment of the underlying cause to prevent ulcer recurrence.

Treatment of acute symptoms and complications

Relief of symptoms and healing of peptic ulcer

Before the 1970s treatment of peptic ulcer relied on antacids, anticholinergics, a bland diet, and bed rest. The therapeutic efficacy was low and many patients resorted to surgery such as partial gastrectomy and vagotomy.

In 1977, the first H2-receptor antagonist, cimetidine, was introduced. Subsequently, ranitidine, famotidine, and nizatidine became available. These are effective acid-suppressive agents, easy to use with an excellent safety profile. H2-Receptor antagonists quickly became the treatment of choice for peptic ulcer disease, but they have several disadvantages. Cimetidine has mild antiandrogenic effects, leading to gynaecomastia and impotence in some patients. The ability of cimetidine to bind to hepatic enzyme cytochrome P450 has also led to many interactions with other drugs, altering the pharmacokinetics of medications. Cimetidine is reported to interact with theophylline, phenytoin, lidocaine, warfarin, β-blockers, tricyclic antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and many others. A variety of neurological reactions have also been reported such as headache, lethargy, depression, memory impairment, and confusion, especially in older patients. Furthermore, the reversible competitive inhibition of histamine-stimulated acid secretion provides only a modest suppression of acid secretion. The postprandial acidity of the stomach is still relatively high.

In addition to the acid-suppressive agents, drugs claimed to have ‘cytoprotective’ activities were developed in the 1980s. Sucralfate is a complex salt of sucrose in which the eight hydroxyl groups of sucrose are replaced by sulfate and aluminium hydroxide. It is insoluble in water, forming a thick, tenacious paste that covers the surface of gastrointestinal mucosa. Sucralfate has no acid-suppressing effects and is believed to work by coating the luminal surface of the ulcer, absorbing bile salts and pepsin and protecting the injured mucosa from further insult by erosive substances in the stomach. However, its ulcer healing effect is slow. Because of its aluminium content, it is considered unsafe in patients with chronic renal insufficiency. Acute aluminium toxicity has been reported in patients with end-stage renal failure. Sucralfate is now rarely used in the clinical management of peptic ulcers.

Bismuth salts have been used for many years for the treatment of diarrhoea, dyspepsia, and abdominal pain. As in case of sucralfate, bismuth has no effect on acid secretion in the stomach. The mechanism of action is unknown but it is found to preferentially cover the ulcer crater. In the early 1980s bismuth was found to inhibit the growth of H. pylori, which may partially explain its ulcer healing activity. Colloidal bismuth subcitrate and bismuth subsalicylate (BSS) are available for clinical use. The use of bismuth subcitrate will blacken stool. which might be confusing for patients suffering from gastrointestinal bleeding. There are isolated reports of neurotoxicity related to the use of bismuth subcitrate and bismuth subsalicylate when used in large doses in older patients. Otherwise, bismuth is a fairly safe drug. Its use is now mainly confined to the treatment of H. pylori infection in combination with other antimicrobial agents.

Prostaglandins are derivatives of unsaturated fatty acid known as eiconsanoids. The human gastrointestinal tract synthesizes several prostaglandins such as PGE2 and PGF2. Prostaglandins have been found to have a modest effect in inhibiting acid secretion in the stomach as well as stimulating the production of bicarbonate and mucin. Misoprostol has been developed as a prostaglandin analogue for human use. The standard dose of the drug is 800 µg/day taken in four divided doses. The ulcer-healing effect is not as potent as other acid-suppressive agent and the regimen is inconvenient, but because of the nature of its action misoprostol offers one of the best treatments for NSAID-related ulcers and prevention of this condition. Diarrhoea is the most common side effects and limits the use of misoprostol in daily practice. It is also contraindicated in pregnancy as it may induce abortion. Uterine bleeding has been reported in a substantial proportion of patients.

Proton pump inhibitors represents a major advancement in the treatment of acid-related gastrointestinal disorders. The final step of hydrogen ion secretion by the parietal cells is accomplished by H+,K+-APTase, an acid pump that exchanges hydrogen for potassium. These pumps are located at the apical membrane of tubulovesicular apparatus of the parietal cells. Proton pump inhibitors such as omeprazole, lansoprazole, pantoprazole, and rabeprazole are substituted benzimidazoles that bind to the acid pump irreversibly. These drugs turn off acid secretion stimulated by any kind of stimulants. Recovery of acid secretion requires synthesis of new enzyme in the acid pump. The most effective way of administering a proton pump inhibitor is to take the drug before meals, i.e. before acid secretion is triggered by food. Usually, a single daily dose gives quick relief of symptoms and effective healing of peptic ulcers in 4 to 6 weeks. Compared to misoprostol and H2-receptor antagonists, a proton pump inhibitor such as omeprazole is more effective in healing the ulcer as well as preventing further peptic ulcerations and erosions. As the most potent inhibitors of acid secretion, proton pump inhibitors are also the treatment of choice for Zollinger–Ellison syndrome. They have also been found to suppress the growth of H. pylori and forms an integral part in combination therapy to eradicate H. pylori in the stomach (‘proton pump inhibitor triple therapy’). Initial suspicion that prolonged suppression of the proton pump leads to enterochromaffin-like cell hyperplasia has not been proved in humans. Patients who have received proton pump inhibitors for more than 10 years have not reported significant side effects.

Treatment of ulcer bleeding

The management of patients with upper gastrointestinal haemorrhage requires a multidisciplinary approach mandating cooperation among medical and surgical gastroenterologists with access to skills in endoscopic and surgical haemostasis. Endoscopic therapy is often the first treatment in the management algorithm. Approximately 80 to 85% of upper gastrointestinal bleeding stops spontaneously. The remaining 15 to 20% continue to bleed or develop recurrent bleeding and these patients constitute the high-risk group with substantial increased morbidity and mortality. Early risk stratification of patients with upper gastrointestinal bleeding based on clinical and endoscopic criteria allows delivery of an appropriate level of care to patients. Endoscopic therapy is now widely accepted as the first line of therapy for upper gastrointestinal bleeding. It should be applied to actively bleeding ulcers or ulcers covered with an adherent clot (Forrest class IIB). Many clinical trials and at least two meta-analyses have confirmed the efficacy of endoscopic haemostasis with dual therapy. Endoscopic therapy reduces recurrent bleeding and the need for surgical intervention.

Endoscopic therapy can be broadly categorized into endoscopic injection, thermal coagulation, and mechanical haemostasis:

  • Epinephrine, polidocanol, sodium tetradectyl sulphate, absolute alcohol, and even saline solution have been used for injection. No single agent for endoscopic injection is superior to another for achieving haemostasis. The mechanism of action is mostly related to a tamponade effect produced by the solution injected. The haemostatic effect of endoscopic injection is only transient, as the solution will be absorbed by the tissue. Injection is therefore not recommended as the sole therapy for peptic ulcer bleeding. Combination with other modalities is required.
  • Thermal devices include heated probes; electrocoagulation is required to secure haemostasis. Thermal devices seal blood vessels underneath the ulcer base by pressure and heat energy. This combined pressure–thermal energy effect is called ‘coaptive coagulation’. Like endoscopic injection, no single method of endoscopic coaptive therapy is superior to the others.
  • Mechanical haemostasis can be achieved by endoscopic clipping or, in some cases, banding ligation. Various kinds of endoscopic clips have been developed and they are useful device to deal with protruding vessels at the ulcer base. Mechanical haemostasis is found to be as effective as thermal device in controlling peptic ulcer bleeding.

Combining endoscopic injection with either thermal coagulation or mechanical haemostasis represents the best endoscopic therapy, with an overall success rate of around 90%.

As an acidic environment in the stomach and duodenum inhibits platelet aggregation and activates enzymatic activity of pepcinogen, suppression of acid, especially in the early phase of peptic ulcer bleeding, is useful as an adjuvant therapy. Randomized studies and a subsequent systematic review have confirmed that high-dose intravenous proton pump inhibitor offers an effective inhibition of gastric acid secretion and reduces recurrent bleeding. Patients receiving these intravenous infusions require less blood transfusion, fewer repeated endoscopic treatments, and fewer surgical operations. Recent data suggest that the use of intravenous proton pump inhibitor in the early phase of bleeding, before endoscopy, may reduce the requirement for endoscopic therapy and shorten hospital stay.

Prevention of ulcer recurrence

Treatment of H. pylori infection

Treatment of H. pylori is a cure for peptic ulcer disease in most patients. H. pylori is susceptible to many different antimicrobials and a variety of combinations have been used successfully. Antimicrobials that have proved effective include amoxicillin, metronidazole, tetracycline, clarithromycin, and furazolidone. Other less commonly used antimicrobials include rifabutin and several fluoroquinolones. Successful cure of infection usually requires two antimicrobial agents. Cure rates with single antimicrobial agents are poor, ranging from 0 to 35%, and monotherapy is also associated with the rapid development of antibiotic resistance. It is therefore not recommended for H. pylori infections. In principle, only those regimens that give high cure rates (>90%) should be used as first line therapy. Generally, higher doses and longer durations provide better results. Antibiotic resistance leads to reduced efficacy of therapy. The antimicrobial resistance pattern of H. pylori should be monitored and made known in each locality. The patient’s compliance with therapy is very important for successful cure of the infection, so regimens should be simple and with few side effects that might affect compliance.

Treatment regimens for H. pylori infection are classified by the number of antibiotics and adjunctive agents employed. Dual therapies were the first therapies to be introduced for H. pylori. Because of low cure rates and a high frequency of clarithromycin resistance among the treatment failures, dual therapies with a proton pump inhibitor and clarithromycin or amoxicillin, or ranitidine and bismuth citrate with clarithromycin, are no longer recommended. Triple therapy with either bismuth or a proton pump inhibitor combined with two antibiotics is now the most widely used regimen. Ranitidine bismuth citrate may be substituted for bismuth or a proton pump inhibitor, but in many countries this drug is not available. Therapy with metronidazole, tetracycline, and bismuth (‘traditional’ triple therapy) produces very good cure rates, especially with organisms sensitive to metronidazole. However, the side effects of metronidazole may be prohibitive in some patients. Substitution of clarithromycin for metronidazole gives similar results. Amoxicillin should be substituted for tetracycline in children to avoid staining of teeth. The most popular triple therapy combines a proton pump inhibitor with any two of these three antimicrobials: amoxicillin, metronidazole, and clarithromycin. The triple therapy described above is often enough unless the organism being treated is resistant to clarithromycin or metronidazole.

The most effective regimens to cure H. pylori infection are combinations of two antibiotics and adjunctive agents taken for 7 to 14 days (Table 1). Although regimens composed of two antibiotics with a proton pump inhibitor are expensive, they are easy to take and have few major side effects. Unless a patient has taken clarithromycin previously, one of the two regimens containing this antibiotic, with an additional antimicrobial plus a proton pump inhibitor, is recommended. The most effective and best-tolerated combination seems to be a twice daily combination of a proton pump inhibitor with clarithromycin 500 mg twice daily plus 1000 mg of amoxicillin (PPI +AC) or 500 mg of metronidazole (PPI +MC). The choice of antibiotic should be determined by the local antibiotic resistance pattern and the history of treatment received by the patient.

Table 1  Recommended first-line regimens to treat Helicobacter pylori
Adjuvant Antimicrobial 1 Antimicrobial 2 Duration of therapy (days)
Proton pump inhibitor twice daily Clarithromycin twice daily Amoxicillin twice daily or metronidazole twice daily 7–14
Ranitidine bismuth citrate twice daily Clarithromycin twice daily Amoxicillin twice daily or metronidazole twice daily 7–14
Bismuth four times daily Tetracycline four times daily Metronidazole three times daily 7–14

Eradication of H. pylori can be confirmed by urea breath test, stool antigen test, or biopsy urease test. In order to differentiate temporary suppression of H. pylori from successful eradication, these tests should be done at least 4 weeks after finishing the anti-Helicobacter regimens and discontinuation of proton pump inhibitor for at least 2 weeks.

Patients who fail to respond to these first line therapies should be considered for repeat proton pump inhibitor-based therapy switching between clarithromycin and metronidazole. As clarithromycin resistance readily developed after exposure, repeating the same regimen with clarithromycin is usually futile. A longer treatment duration such as 2 to 4 weeks is desirable to ensure optimal antimicrobial activity. The other option is to use a quadruple therapy combining proton pump inhibitors twice daily, bismuth salt four times daily, tetracycline 500 mg four times daily and metronidzole 500 mg three times daily. This is a more complicated regimen, with significant side effects. Patient compliance is a main determining factor for the success of therapy. In recent years, levofloxacin 250 mg twice daily and rifabutin 150 to 300 mg daily in combination with a proton pump inhibitor and amoxicillin has been advocated for multidrug resistant H. pylori.

Prevention of NSAID-associated ulcer

NSAID-associated ulcer and ulcer complications are more commonly reported in high-risk individuals, i.e. older people and those with history of peptic ulcer disease or chronic medical illness. Concomitant use of NSAIDs with aspirin, anticoagulants or corticosteroid also increases the risk of bleeding from peptic ulcers. Special caution has to be exercised before prescribing NSAIDs to these patients.

Various prophylactic strategies to reduce gastroduodenal injury by NSIADs have been investigated. These include concurrent treatment with H2-receptor antagonist, misoprostol, proton pump inhibitor, and substitution of conventional NSAIDs by COX-2 selective inhibitors. Systematic review pooling over 30 randomized controlled clinical trials of misoprostol, H2-receptor antagonist, or proton pump inhibitor for the prevention of gastroduodenal ulcer showed that these drugs have different efficacy. H2-Receptor antagonists reduce the risk of duodenal ulcer, but not not of gastric ulcer, except at very high dose. Misoprostol at 80 µg per day can reduce ulcer and ulcer complication but its side effects are significant. Proton pump inhibitors can reduce the risk of both duodenal and gastric ulcers associated with NSAIDs and they are much better tolerated than misoprostol.

The interaction between H. pylori and NSAIDs in the development of peptic ulcer disease is a complex. Clinical studies reported by different investigators have yielded conflicting results. Part of the confusion stems from the recruitment of different patient groups and use of different outcome measurement. Meta-analysis of 16 studies showed that H. pylori infection and NSAID use increase the risk of ulcer bleeding by 1.8-fold and 4.8-fold respectively. The risk of ulcer bleeding increases to around sixfold when both factors are present. This implies that NSAIDs and H. pylori are independent but additive risk factors for ulcer development. H. pylori-infected individuals taking NSAIDs will have an increased risk of peptic ulcer and ulcer complications. If a patient known to have H. pylori infection requires an NSAIDs, eradicating H. pylori before using the NSAID may substantially reduce the risk of peptic ulcer disease. However, simply curing H. pylori infection may not be sufficient to protect the stomach and duodenum from ulcer formation in high-risk individuals. In elderly patients with history of ulcer complication, concomitant use of a proton pump inhibitor is warranted. In these patients, even the use of COX-2 selective inhibitors is not entirely safe. The risk of recurrent bleeding with celecoxib is comparable to the use of diclofenac combined with omeprazole, according to one study. In patients with a history of ulcer bleeding, a combination of COX-2 selective inhibitors with a proton pump inhibitor offers the best safety profile for the gastrointestinal tract (Table 2).

Prevention of ulcer associated with antiplatelet agents

Aspirin and clopidogrel are increasing used in the prevention of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases. Aspirin-induced peptic ulcer disease is dose dependent, so the lowest dose of aspirin should be prescribed. Aspirin is often used in elderly patients who require NSAID or COX-2 selective inhibitors for musculoskeletal pain. Combinations of aspirin with NSAIDs and COX-2 selective inhibitors have been shown to increase the risk of ulcer bleeding substantially. The gastric sparing effect of COX-2 inhibitors is offset by the concomitant use of low-dose aspirin, so this combination should be avoided if possible. Eradication of H. pylori infection has been shown to reduce the risk of peptic ulcer bleeding in high-risk individuals (Table 2). Recent study shows that if aspirin is discontinued for a prolonged period after peptic ulcer bleeding, patient survival may be jeopardized as a result of cardiovascular or cerebrovascular conditions. Clinicians are advised to exercise discretion and balance the risk and benefit of discontinuing anti-platelet agents in these patients.

Table 2  Recommendations for reducing the risk of ulcer and ulcer complications in high-risk patients (NSAID and aspirin users)
Strategies NSAID users Aspirin users
Choice of medication Choose less ulcerogenic NSIAD (e.g. ibuprofen) or short-term COX-2 selective inhibitors Use low-dose aspirin (80–100 mg/day)
H. pylori infection Eradicate H. pylori infection with proton pump inhibitor triple therapy Eradicate H. pylori infection with proton pump inhibitor triple therapy
Concomitant medication Avoid combining with aspirin, anticoagulants, and steroid Avoid combining with NSAID, clopidogrel, COX-2 selective inhibitors, anticoagulant, and steroid
Ulcer-preventing drugs Proton pump inhibitor or high-dose H2-receptor antagonist in high-risk individuals Proton pump inhibitors in high-risk individuals

Clopidogrel has an improved gastrintestinal safety profile compare to aspirin in general use. However, in high-risk individuals, e.g. elderly patients with a history of ulcer or ulcer complication, the risk of peptic ulcer with clopidogrel should not be underestimated. In a head-to-head comparison between clopidogrel and low-dose aspirin combined with proton pump inhibitors, the risks of peptic ulcer bleeding were shown to be similar for both strategies. In recent years, there has been a trend to combine aspirin and clopidogrel in the management of patients with myocardial infarction, especially after percutaneous coronary interventions with stenting. A combined use of two antiplatelet agents is recommended for at least 6 months after the procedures. The combination of clopidogrel and aspirin is expected to further increase the gastrointestinal risk, so the benefit of using these antiplatelet agents must be balanced against the risk of causing gastrointestinal toxicity in these patients. This could be a difficult decision in elderly patients with life-threatening cardiovascular disease and a history of ulcer complication in the past. Future studies should be directed towards prevention of ulcer bleeding in patients requiring double antiplatelet agents.

Surgery and peptic ulcer complications

With the improvement of ulcer treatment using proton pump inhibitors and anti-Helicobacter therapy, the role of ulcer surgery has diminished. Classical operative procedures such as partial gastrectomy (Billroth I and Billroth II gastrectomy) and vagotomy are now rarely performed except for unhealed or recurrent peptic ulcers in the stomach or duodenum. As a result, postgastrectomy complications such as afferent loop syndrome, dumping syndrome, postvagotomy diarrhoea, and bile reflux gastropathy are disappearing in clinical practice.

Surgery is still the most effective method of treating peptic ulcer bleeding arising from ulcers at difficult positions or large submucosal vessels, e.g. the gastroduodenal artery. Plication of the bleeding vessels and/or removal of part of the stomach or duodenum remain the definitive method of controlling bleeding that cannot be stopped by pharmacological and endoscopic measures. Often, this is a life-saving procedure. The decision to operate is best made by a team of experienced gastroenterologists and gastrointestinal surgeons with a close working relationship. Repeated, unsuccessful attempts at endoscopic haemostasis leads to undue delay in surgery, massive blood transfusion, and multiorgan failure, jeopardizing the patient’s survival. In a study comparing second-attempt endoscopic therapy vs surgery, ulcer surgery showed a superior haemostasis result although postoperative complications were frequent. An individual-based decision and the exercise of clinical discretion are therefore required.

Despite initial enthusiasm for endoscopic dilatation of pyloric stenosis, the long-term result is disappointing. Gastric outlet obstruction often recurs months or years after endoscopic balloon dilatation. Partial gastrectomy and vagotomy may solve the problem of obstruction once and for all, saving the patient repeated admissions to hospital. Free perforation of the ulcer into the peritoneum is another indication for ulcer surgery. Repair of perforation and vagotomy is usually adequate to control the disaster. Treatment of H. pylori infection and a maintenance dose of proton pump inhibitor are indicated as follow-up therapy.

Areas of uncertainty and future development

We have come a long way in the last two decades in the understanding of pathogenesis of peptic ulcer disease and its management. Substantial improvements have been made in preventing recurrent disease and in the treatment of its associated complications. There are, however, areas of uncertainty and room for future improvement.

Although H. pylori has been identified as the major cause of peptic ulcer disease in individuals who do note use NSAIDs or aspirin, it is still not clear why only a relatively small proportion of infected subjects develop peptic ulcer disease. Bacterial factors (other than the cag pathogenesity island) and host factors (other than IL-1b polymorphism) need further studies to elucidate the difference in outcome. With rapid emergence of antimicrobial resistance in H. pylori, cure cannot be assumed without confirmation. An effective second-line therapy is still much needed.

The best strategy for high-risk individuals requiring antiplatelet, NSAIDs, or COX-2 inhibitors needs further studies. There are, at present, very few data on the effective protection of the gastrointestinal tract when patients are prescribed double antiplatelet agents. Scepticism still persists about the safety of eradicating H. pylori as the only prophylaxis for aspirin users. In view of the complicated interaction between NSAIDs, COX-2 inhibitors, and antiplatelet agents in vascular and gastrointestinal safety, a matrix for choice of therapy under different circumstances is much desired. Guidelines need to be developed for primary care physicians, cardiologists, and gastroenterologists looking after these patients.

The role of nitric oxide is receiving more attention in understanding the gastrointestinal toxicity of NSAIDs and analgesics. The development of NSAIDs and aspirin coupled with a molecule of nitric oxide is an exciting area that opens up a new horizon in the management of peptic ulcer disease in those who requires anti-inflammatory medication and antiplatelet therapy. The efficacy and safety of these drugs can only be confirmed by carefully designed clinical studies.

Despite the advances in pharmacological and endoscopic therapy, the mortality of ulcer bleeding remains at 7 to 10%. Especially in the elderly patients, death is often related to non-bleeding causes such as cardio-pulmonary conditions, multi-organ failure and terminal malignancy. Clinicians are reminded to manage the comorbid illness instead of focusing on bleeding lesions alone. In difficult cases of ulcer bleeding, endoscopy and surgery are the two common approaches available at this stage. The role of radiological intervention, i.e. embolization of the feeding artery at the ulcer base, deserves a more careful investigation.

Further reading  

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