I’ve been asked multiple times, “Doc, is it bad if I always get gastric pain? Is having frequent gastric pain normal?” Well, the answer is no. You might think the answer to that is obvious, but many are actually unaware of the health implications frequent gastric pain brings. As a general surgeon in Singapore, I’ve noticed that the cases of gastric pain are rising, and I can only credit that to our busy lifestyles and irregular eating habits.
Gastric pain once in a while is normal — even I get it sometimes when I’m too busy seeing patients and have no time to eat. But frequent gastric pain should not be taken lightly as it can lead to chronic gastritis. If not treated, chronic gastritis can increase your risk of stomach ulcers. In this article, I will share the causes of chronic gastric pain and why I think this condition is avoidable.
First, what is chronic gastric pain?
Our stomach lining contains glands that produce stomach acid, which breaks down food to protect us from infection. However, many don’t know that stomach acid is also strong enough to destroy your stomach. So, in order to protect itself from excessive stomach acid, our stomach lining produces mucus.
Chronic gastric pain or gastritis occurs when the stomach lining becomes inflamed due to factors like alcohol, chronic stress, certain medications or immune system problems. This inflammation causes your stomach lining to lose some of its protective cells over a long period of time. If untreated, it can cause dysplasia or metaplasia, which can lead to cancer.
The good news is chronic gastritis usually gets better with ongoing monitoring — unfortunately, many neglect their health and do not visit a doctor till it’s too late.
What are the symptoms of chronic gastric pain?
Patients often experience:
- Upper abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Bloated stomach
- Excessive belching
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
If you experience these symptoms regularly, it is in your best interest to see a doctor. I’ve previously written a more comprehensive article on when to see a doctor for gastric pain, you may find it helpful.
Are there any particular risk factors or direct causes of chronic gastric pain?
Gastric pain or chronic gastritis usually occurs from an irritation of the stomach lining. The following can irritate your stomach lining:
- Long term use of medication like painkillers (e.g. aspirin and ibuprofen). Multiple studies have shown the link between the long term use of NSAIDs and gastrointestinal side effects. Even if you are prescribed to take them for a short amount of time, I advise you to never take such medication on an empty stomach.
- Long term consumption of alcohol — alcohol makes your stomach produce more acid than usual and damages the mucous cells that protect your stomach.
- Presence of Helicobacter Pylori bacteria, which roughly causes 84% of stomach cancer cases.
- Illnesses like diabetes and kidney failure — over time, diabetes and kidney failure can affect how food moves within the stomach.
- A weak immune system — people with weakened immune systems also tend to have weakened gastrointestinal systems.
- Persistent, intense stress which affects the immune system
- Bile reflux, not to be mistaken with acid reflux.
- A diet high in salt and fat — most gastrointestinal diseases are known to be largely influenced by a person’s lifestyle and diet; a high salt and fat intake potentially alters the gut microbiota composition and function. Diet in my opinion is one of the easiest ways we can control gastric pain problems. It may be difficult at first with the typical Singaporean diet, but we should at least try for the sake of our health!
How is chronic gastric pain diagnosed?
Your doctor will usually ask about your medical history and symptoms and if need be, conduct a series of tests. The tests I carry out to help me determine if there are more serious issues at hand include:
- A stool test to look for stomach bleeding
- An anaemia test or blood count test
- An endoscopy, in which a thin and flexible tube with a camera attached to it is inserted into your digestive tract through your mouth. An endoscopy allows me to determine the cause of any unusual symptoms you may be experiencing. I may also remove a small sample of tissue (endoscopic biopsy) for further testing.
Can recurring gastric pain be treated?
Yes, it absolutely can — medication and diet are the most common ways of treating chronic gastric pain. Let me quickly explain the three types of chronic gastric pain so you can better understand their treatment protocols.
- Type A gastric pain, which is caused by your immune system
- Type B gastric pain, which is caused by Helicobacter Pylori bacteria
- Type C gastric pain, which is caused by chemical irritants like alcohol and NSAIDs
For patients with Type A, I usually try to get them to implement diet changes to address any nutrients they might be lacking; for type B, I get them on medication to reduce their stomach acid; and for type C, I prevent further damage to their stomach by requesting they eliminate NSAIDs or alcohol.
It is important you listen to your doctor’s advice and address the underlying cause of your gastric pain. Persistent gastric pain can wear away your stomach lining, causing changes in your stomach cells, eventually leading to gastric cancer.
Don’t wait till it’s too late!
- Li, J., Sun, F., Guo, Y., & Fan, H. (2019). High-Salt Diet Gets Involved in Gastrointestinal Diseases through the Reshaping of Gastroenterological Milieu. Digestion, 99(4), 267–274. https://doi.org/10.1159/000493096
- Choi, H. H., Kim, S. S., Kim, H. K., Kim, S. W., & Chae, H. S. (2018). Natural polypectomy of a gastric polyp. Gastrointestinal endoscopy, 87(5), 1354–1355. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gie.2017.10.017