Dyspepsia

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oPatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Dyspepsia describes pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen. It has been defined variously by a number of expert groups:

  • Prior to 1991, dyspepsia included patients with symptoms of heartburn and acid reflux.[1]
  • The Rome I definition defined patients with sole reflux symptoms as having gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) - also seen as 'GERD'.
  • More recently, these criteria have been extended to exclude patients with predominant reflux symptoms and symptoms suggestive of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).[2] 

Prescribing on ulcer healing drugs varies from year to year but there is a general increasing trend.[3] 

  • A Belgian population study reported a prevalence of 20.6%.[4] 
  • Approximately 25% of people with dyspepsia will consult their GP.[5] 
  • There is evidence of inappropriate (not per guidelines) proton pump inhibitor (PPI) prescribing by GPs and hospital doctors.[6] 
  • Epigastric discomfort
  • Fullness or bloating
  • Excessive flatus
  • Nausea
  • Fatty food intolerance

Always ask about family history and medication use.

Ask about 'red flag' symptoms such as:
  • Unintentional weight loss.
  • Recurrent vomiting.
  • Dysphagia.
  • Evidence of gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding.

If investigated, patients with dyspeptic symptoms will prove to have either:[8]

  • Peptic ulcer disease (10%).
  • Oesophagitis (15%).
  • No significant abnormality (non-ulcer dyspepsia or functional dyspepsia - 75%).

Older patients are more likely to have serious disease.

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  • Always check for abdominal mass.
  • Consider taking FBC to demonstrate another alarm feature - eg, iron-deficiency anaemia.
  • Testing for Helicobacter pylori may be worthwhile. The evidence is equivocal but there seems to be a subset of H. pylori-related dyspepsia patients who do improve on eradication therapy.[10] Eradication of H. pylori in patients who are about to start non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) substantially reduces the risk of endoscopic and complicated ulcers.[11]

Exclude abdominal mass and other causes of abdominal pain.

Urgent specialist referral - two-week rule

If the patient has dyspepsia at any age with any of the following alarm symptoms:[13] 
  • Chronic GI bleeding.
  • Progressive unintentional weight loss.
  • Progressive dysphagia.
  • Persistent vomiting.
  • Iron-deficiency anaemia.
  • Epigastric mass.
  • Suspicious barium meal.
NB: patients aged 55 years or older with unexplained and persistent recent-onset dyspepsia should be referred urgently for endoscopy.[9]

For patients without alarm features and with previous investigations for dyspepsia[13] 

It is possible to treat on the basis that a similar pathology has recurred, although refer to a specialist if the patient is unresponsive to treatment or the diagnosis is in doubt.

  • If there has been a peptic ulcer previously and no evidence of H. pylori eradication, prescribe H. pylori eradication therapy if the test is positive. See separate article Helicobacter Pylori for details.
  • If peptic ulcer has been excluded (functional or non-ulcer dyspepsia), H. pylori eradication (after a positive test) may relieve symptoms.
  • For people with GORD, offer a full-dose PPI, as detailed in the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance, for four to eight weeks.[14] 
  • Where there is no initial response to a PPI (and recent endoscopy has shown GORD), offer H2-receptor antagonist (H2RA).
  • Prokinetic agents are no longer recommended. However, several new-generation prokinetics such as acotiamide are emerging. Acotiamide has received approval for use in Japan and is currently being evaluated in Europe.[15] 
  • Some patients may require prolonged high doses of PPI and may ultimately be candidates for anti-reflux surgery. This is often carried out laparoscopically.[16] 
  • If there has been oesophagitis previously, prescribe a PPI.
  • If symptoms recur after initial treatment, offer the lowest-dose PPI that will control symptoms.
  • If severe oesophagitis has been diagnosed on endoscopy:
    • A full-dose PPI should be given for eight weeks (taking into account preference and clinical circumstances - eg, tolerability to PPIs, underlying health conditions and possible interactions with other drugs).
    • Switch to another full-dose PPI or high-dose PPI if initial treatment fails.[14] 
    • Offer a full-dose PPI long-term as maintenance treatment.

For the uninvestigated patient without alarm features[13] 

The NICE guideline suggests the following steps:

  • Review medications: possible drug causes of dyspepsia include NSAIDs, steroids, calcium antagonists, nitrates, theophyllines and bisphosphonates. Reduce or stop if possible.
  • Offer lifestyle advice, ie stopping smoking, more regular meals, ceasing excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Antacids are cheap, simple and may be all that is required for relief of occasional symptoms. Most antacids contain a mixture of aluminium hydroxide that tends to cause constipation and magnesium hydroxide that tends to cause diarrhoea. The balance between the two cannot be assured and there may be disturbance of bowel function. If a large amount of antacid is being consumed, consider acid suppression.
  • Try either of the following. The alternative choice can be tried if symptoms persist or return:
    • Test for H. pylori (carbon-13 urea breath test, stool antigen or laboratory serology) and eradicate if positive.
    • Empirical acid suppression (with PPI) - full dose for one month.

Where there has been a satisfactory response at any of the steps above, reassure and return to self-care.

If the patient responds to a PPI but then relapses, consider low-dose or intermittent treatment.

Where patients show an inadequate response to treatment, consider other diagnoses (eg, gallstones) and/or referral to a specialist.

Pharmacological issues[17]

  • Adverse reactions to PPIs and H2RAs are usually rare and mild but severe problems can arise:
    • Rare but not serious problems may include taste disturbance, peripheral oedema, photosensitivity, fever, arthralgia, myalgia and sweating.
    • Serious problems include liver dysfunction, hypersensitivity reactions (including urticaria, angio-oedema, bronchospasm, anaphylaxis), depression, interstitial nephritis, blood disorders (including leukopenia, leukocytosis, pancytopenia, thrombocytopenia) and skin reactions (including Stevens-Johnson syndrome, toxic epidermal necrolysis, bullous eruption).
  • Many of the drugs used in the management of peptic ulcer disease carry a warning that they should not be used in pregnancy or whilst breast-feeding:
    • This is usually because of lack of information about safety in pregnancy rather than evidence of adverse effects in pregnancy.
    • However, misoprostol - a prostaglandin analogue - should be avoided in pregnancy as it may cause abortion.
  • PPIs are metabolised mostly in the liver. In liver disease, dose adjustment may be required for omeprazole, pantoprazole and esomeprazole. There are no data on the use of rabeprazole in people with severe hepatic impairment, so the manufacturer advises caution.
  • Omeprazole and esomeprazole may interfere with warfarin monitoring.

Patients should be reviewed at the end of a course of treatment, especially H. pylori eradication, to confirm a satisfactory outcome. The criteria to be used to measure satisfactory patient outcome are subject to controversy, and instruments to determine clinical endpoints are evolving.

If simple acid suppression is given, the patient should be reviewed after one or two months to ascertain that the end is being achieved and there are no warning signs such as weight loss to suggest malignancy.

Routine endoscopic investigation of dyspeptic patients is not necessary but should be considered in patients over the age of 55 where symptoms persist despite H. pylori testing and acid suppression.

Patients with the following risk factors have a higher risk of malignancy and so lower your threshold for endoscopy referral:[9]
  • Family history of upper GI cancer in more than two first-degree relatives.
  • Barrett's oesophagitis.
  • Pernicious anaemia.
  • Peptic ulcer surgery over 20 years ago.
  • Known dysplasia, atrophic gastritis, intestinal metaplasia.

Further reading & references

  • Emami MH, Zobeiri M, Rahimi H, et al; N-acetyl cysteine as an adjunct to standard anti-Helicobacter pylori eradication regimen in patients with dyspepsia: A prospective randomized, open-label trial. Adv Biomed Res. 2014 Sep 8;3:189. doi: 10.4103/2277-9175.140403. eCollection 2014.
  • Jahng J, Kim YS; Is "how are you doing"enough? Need for tailored questions to the patients with functional dyspepsia. J Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2014 Oct 30;20(4):421-2. doi: 10.5056/jnm.20.421.
  1. No authors listed; Management of dyspepsia: report of a working party. Lancet. 1988 Mar 12;1(8585):576-9.
  2. Jung HK; Rome III Criteria for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders: Is There a Need for a Better Definition? J Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2011 Jul;17(3):211-2. doi: 10.5056/jnm.2011.17.3.211. Epub 2011 Jul 13.
  3. Gastro-Intestinal System National Charts; NHS Business Services Authority, 2014
  4. Piessevaux H, De Winter B, Louis E, et al; Dyspeptic symptoms in the general population: a factor and cluster analysis of symptom groupings. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2009 Apr;21(4):378-88. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2982.2009.01262.x. Epub 2009 Feb 12.
  5. Dyspepsia - proven GORD; NICE CKS, November 2012 (UK access only)
  6. Haroon M, Yasin F, Gardezi SK, et al; Inappropriate use of proton pump inhibitors among medical inpatients: a questionnaire-based observational study. JRSM Short Rep. 2013 Jun 25;4(8):2042533313497183. doi: 10.1177/2042533313497183. eCollection 2013.
  7. Dyspepsia; Gastro Training, 2011
  8. Talley NJ et al; American Gastroenterological Association Technical Review on the Evaluation of Dyspepsia, Gastroenterology, 2005;129:1756–1780.
  9. Referral for suspected cancer; NICE Clinical Guideline (2005)
  10. Suzuki H, Nishizawa T, Hibi T; Can Helicobacter pylori-associated dyspepsia be categorized as functional dyspepsia? J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2011 Apr;26 Suppl 3:42-5. doi:
  11. Should You Eradicate Helicobacter Pylori Prior to Chronic NSAID Treatment?; Clinical Correlations, 2011
  12. Oustamanolakis P, Tack J; Dyspepsia: organic versus functional. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2012 Mar;46(3):175-90. doi: 10.1097/MCG.0b013e318241b335.
  13. Dyspepsia and gastro‑oesophageal reflux disease: Investigation and management of dyspepsia - symptoms suggestive of gastro‑oesophageal reflux disease - or both; NICE Clinical Guideline (Sept 2014)
  14. Appendix A: Dosage information on proton pump inhibitors; NICE Guideline CG184, September 2014
  15. Nolan ML, Scott LJ; Acotiamide: first global approval. Drugs. 2013 Aug;73(12):1377-83. doi: 10.1007/s40265-013-0100-9.
  16. Broeders JA, Roks DJ, Ahmed Ali U, et al; Laparoscopic anterior 180-degree versus nissen fundoplication for gastroesophageal reflux disease: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Ann Surg. 2013 May;257(5):850-9. doi: 10.1097/SLA.0b013e31828604dd.
  17. British National Formulary
  18. Ang D, Talley NJ, Simren M, et al; Review article: endpoints used in functional dyspepsia drug therapy trials. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2011 Mar;33(6):634-49. doi:

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Hayley Willacy
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Prof Cathy Jackson
Document ID:
459 (v7)
Last Checked:
27/10/2014
Next Review:
26/10/2019