Indigestion Patient Information Fact Sheet

What is indigestion?
Indigestion, also known as dyspepsia, is a general term used to describe discomfort or pain in the upper abdomen or chest, usually after meals. When a burning discomfort is felt behind the breast bone, it is known as heartburn. Pain in the upper abdomen may come and go with pain ranging from mild to severe. For some people it can be relieved by food, especially if it feels like a hunger pain, although for others it can occur after eating. It can occur by day or at night, when it may be relieved by a snack or a drink of milk. Alternatively, it can occur without any relation to food at all. The stomach may feel full soon after starting to eat, so that it is difficult to finish a meal, or there may be an uncomfortable sense of fullness or bloating after a meal. The word “indigestion” may also be used to describe nausea, retching or even vomiting after food.

What causes indigestion?
Indigestion symptoms may be caused by inflammation of the stomach lining, which can occur as a result of overindulgence in alcohol, the use of aspirin-containing drugs, or due to infection. Another cause can be inflammation of the esophagus, described as “esophagitis.” This is usually caused by digestive juices (acid) repeatedly moving upward from the stomach to the esophagus.

Tests are usually not needed to diagnose indigestion. If they are and no cause is found, the term “non-ulcer dyspepsia” may be used, meaning that no ulcer has been found to account for the symptoms. An ulcer is a break in the lining of the stomach of duodenum (the first part of the small intestine. Because of a component of digestive juice, called pepsin, they are often described as a “peptic ulcer.” Other recognizable causes of indigestion include disorders of the intestine, gallbladder or pancreas. Sometimes indigestion may be caused by drugs commonly taken for arthritis, which can cause irritation of the stomach lining.

Are there tests to confirm indigestion?
Many people do not require tests, but as persistent indigestion may suggest a more serious underlying complaint, the doctor may decide to arrange:
An endoscopy—which involves swallowing a slim flexible telescope with a light in the end to enable the doctor to look into the stomach.
A barium swallow—which involves swallowing a liquid which enables the outline of the stomach to show up on X-ray.
An ultrasound—a technique using reflected sound waves to show the structure of abdominal organs. This technique does not involve passing any tubes into the body.
A blood test—to detect anemia or other abnormality.