Indigestion, also known as dyspepsia, is characterised by an uncomfortable pain in the upper portion of the abdomen. It is also common for stomach pain to be accompanied by other symptoms, including heartburn and bloating. Almost 50 percent of people will suffer from indigestion at some period in their lives. Most people experience symptoms of indigestion from time to time, but if symptoms carry on or you suffer on a regular basis, this could be symptomatic of an underlying health condition and it is worth getting checked out.
What causes indigestion?
In most cases, indigestion is caused by acid from the stomach irritating the lining of the oesophagus, duodenum or stomach (this is known as reflux and occurs when acid comes back up to the oesophagus instead of staying in the stomach). Many people experience indigestion when they eat quickly or eat spicy or very fatty food, and indigestion may also be common after eating a big meal late at night. In the majority of cases, there is no underlying medical condition that causes indigestion and it is not normally a cause for concern. However, there are conditions that increase the risk of indigestion and these include:
- Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease.
- Hiatus hernia.
- Helicobacter pylori infection: H pylori infections are very common and, in most cases, people do not know that they have the infection because they don’t display any symptoms.
- Peptic ulcers: peptic ulcers form when the lining of the stomach or duodenum is damaged.
- Stomach cancer: it is rare for indigestion to be a symptom of stomach cancer but it is possible.
Taking specific kinds of medication, such as nitrates and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, can also cause indigestion and it is more common in people who are obese.
Symptoms of indigestion
Symptoms tend to vary according to the individual, with some people only experiencing very mild symptoms while others develop severe symptoms. Common symptoms of indigestion include:
- Heartburn: this is a fiery hurt in the chest usually felt under the breastbone.
- Pain in the chest or stomach.
- Feeling very full.
- Regurgitation: this occurs when food comes back up from the stomach.
Should I see a doctor?
Indigestion is not normally anything to worry about and most people experience bouts of indigestion from time to time. However, if you suffer on a standard basis, you experience severe abdominal pain or over-the-counter medication does not ease your symptoms, you should think about seeing your GP.
You should definitely see your GP in the following cases:
- You feel a lump in your stomach.
- You have lost weight without trying to or eating less.
- If you notice blood in your urine or stools.
- If you are over the age of 55.
- If you have trouble swallowing (called dysphagia).
- If you are vomiting on a regular basis.
- You have anaemia caused by iron deficiency.
Will I need tests?
This depends on the individual. If you suffer from mild symptoms and on a rare basis, your doctor will probably not carry out any tests. If your symptoms are more severe, you suffer on a regular basis or you have any of the symptoms listed above, your GP may carry out tests to make sure there is no underlying cause of indigestion. Your GP will ask questions about relevant signs of the condition, past medical history and current lifestyle. They may also examine your tummy to check for swelling, tenderness or lumps.
If your GP thinks you may have anaemia the physician will carry out a blood test. If they suspect indigestion may be symptomatic of other health conditions, they may recommend a procedure known as an endoscopy, which involves passing a long, flexible tube down the throat and into the stomach. The procedure allows doctors to see inside your stomach and identify any warning signs or abnormalities. An endoscopy is carried out in hospital but it should not take long and most people are able to leave shortly after the test is complete.
If your GP suspects H pylori infection, several tests will be carried out to test for the presence of H pylori bacteria. These tests include a stool sample, urea breath test and a blood test.
In most cases, indigestion can be treated with self-help techniques, changes in your diet and your GP may also counsel you to follow the below steps:
- Avoid fatty foods.
- Shed the pounds if you are overweight (You can use a BMI calculator to determine whether you are a healthy weight).
- Give up smoking (assistance is obtainable from your GP).
- Avoid drinking too much alcohol.
- Keep track of what kinds of foods trigger your symptoms. Many people find that spicy food makes their symptoms worse.
- Take your time when you are eating.
- Steer clear of eating large meals late at night.
If you are taking medication which is causing you to suffer from indigestion, your GP may advise a different kind of medicine.
Taking medication can also provide quick relief for indigestion and you can buy medicines over-the-counter, such as antacids, or your GP may prescribe you alginates.
If tests reveal indigestion is caused by an underlying health condition, this will be treated as a priority and it is common for symptoms to ease once treatment has started. The nature of the treatment will depend on the condition.
Is indigestion ever serious?
Indigestion is normally a very mild problem and tends to cause discomfort for a short period of time. It is rare for indigestion to cause serious problems, but it may be symptomatic of conditions that could potentially be serious. It is important to see your doctor if you suffer from persistent symptoms, or experience bleeding, lumps or alterations in your bowel habits.