Illustration of the anatomy of the digestive system, adult

What is indigestion?

Indigestion, also known as dyspepsia, is a painful or burning feeling in the upper abdomen and is usually accompanied by nausea, bloating or gas, a feeling of fullness, and, sometimes, vomiting. While indigestion may be the result of a disease or an ulcer in the digestive tract, most often it is the result of eating too much, eating too quickly, eating high-fat foods, or eating during stressful situations.

What causes indigestion?

Some causes of indigestion may include the following:

  • Stomach or duodenal ulcers

  • Stomach irritation (gastritis)

  • Regurgitation or reflux of acid from the stomach into the esophagus 

  • Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection 

  • Inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis)

  • Lactose intolerance (inability to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products)

  • Irritable bowel syndrome and other disorders affecting intestinal motility

  • Swallowing air (aerophagia)

  • Anxiety or depression

  • Medications that irritate the stomach lining

  • Smoking

  • Drinking too much alcohol

What are symptoms of indigestion?

The following are the most common symptoms of indigestion. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Pain and discomfort in the upper abdomen

  • Belching and loud intestinal sounds (borborygmi)

  • Nausea

  • Constipation

  • Poor appetite

  • Diarrhea

  • Flatulence

The symptoms of indigestion may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.

If the indigestion is accompanied by vomiting, weight loss or appetite loss, black tarry stools, blood in the vomit, severe pain in the upper right abdomen, shortness of breath, sweating, radiating pain to the jaw, neck, or arm, or difficult, painful swallowing, it may be an indication of a more serious problem. Contact your health care provider immediately.

How is indigestion diagnosed?

Often the diagnosis is made based on physical examination. However, because indigestion can be a sign of more serious medical problems, often laboratory examinations and X-rays of the stomach and small intestine are performed to rule out other problems. Sometimes, endoscopy is also performed.

Treatment for indigestion

Specific treatment for indigestion will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the condition

  • Your tolerance of specific medicines, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the condition

  • Your opinion or preference

  • Medications such as antacids, H2 receptor antagonists, proton pump inhibitors, antibiotics, and prokinetics

Avoiding foods, medications, and situations that can cause indigestion is one of the most successful ways to treat the problem. Smokers are advised to quit smoking or at least to avoid smoking before meals. Also, exercising after a meal can be a cause of indigestion, so scheduling exercise before a meal, or waiting at least an hour after eating, can also help prevent indigestion.

If indigestion is caused by motility or movement problems in the digestive system that prevent the stomach from emptying properly, medications to treat this may be prescribed.