Until quite recently ulcers were thought to be one of the crosses hard-working executives had to bear. They were the mark of a striving go-getter, who strode from power lunch to stock-market take-over bid, pausing only to swallow a packet of antacid tablets.
Normally, so the theory went, the stomach doesn’t digest itself because a coating of mucus protects it from the hydrochloric acid which, together with an enzyme called pepsin, breaks down the food. But stress and anger can increase the amount of acid in the stomach while aspirin and other drugs can reduce the protective mucus and so the acids begin to eat away at the walls of the stomach or duodenum, creating crater-like sores which can be very swollen and tender. Classic symptoms include burning, intense pain in the mid-upper abdomen, and waking in the early morning, often with a sensation of abnormal hunger.
However, in the last few years a radical new explanation for stomach ulcers has made far more effective treatment possible. It now seems certain that about 80 percent of cases are caused by the action of a spiral-shaped bacterium called Helicohacter pylori which uses its whip-like tail to burrow into the stomach walls.
Most ulcers occur in the duodenum, where the stomach enters the small intestine. They are most common in middle age, though children can get them, too. Males are affected twice as often as females, and they tend to run in families.