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Compared with surgical intervention for recurrent or refractory bleeding, embolization achieves equivalent clinical success rates with lower mortality.

A 2020 American Gastroenterological Association guidelines recommends an initial trial of empiric iron therapy for patients with iron deficiency anemia who have no significant findings on upper endoscopy or colonoscopy and who are without symptoms of small intestinal disease.

A sustained rise in ferritin and hemoglobin with 1–2 months of iron therapy may obviate the need for further studies.

Further investigation of the small intestine is recommended in patients who have anemia that responds poorly to empiric iron supplementation, who have signs of ongoing bleeding (fecal occult blood) or who have worrisome symptoms (abdominal pain, weight loss).

Capsule endoscopy is recommended as the initial study in most patients to look for vascular ectasias and to exclude a small intestinal neoplasia or inflammatory bowel disease.



  • Hematemesis (bright red blood or “coffee grounds”).

  • Melena in most cases; hematochezia in massive upper gastrointestinal bleeds.

  • Volume status to determine severity of blood loss; hematocrit is a poor early indicator of blood loss.

  • Endoscopy diagnostic and may be therapeutic.

General Considerations

There are over 250,000 hospitalizations a year in the United States for acute upper gastrointestinal bleeding. In the United States, the mortality rate for nonvariceal upper gastrointestinal bleeding has declined steadily over the past 20 years to 2.1% in 2009. Mortality is higher in patients who are older than age 60 years and in patients in whom bleeding develops during hospitalization. Patients seldom die of exsanguination but rather of complications from an underlying disease.

The most common presentation of upper gastrointestinal bleeding is hematemesis or melena. Hematemesis may be either bright red blood or brown “coffee grounds” material. Melena develops after as little as 50–100 mL of blood loss in the upper gastrointestinal tract, whereas hematochezia requires a loss of more than 1000 mL. Although hematochezia generally suggests a lower bleeding source (eg, colonic), severe upper gastrointestinal bleeding may present with hematochezia in 10% of cases.

Upper gastrointestinal bleeding is self-limited in 80% of patients; urgent medical therapy and endoscopic evaluation are obligatory in the rest. Patients with bleeding more than 48 hours prior to presentation have a low risk of recurrent bleeding.


Peptic ulcers account for 40% of major upper gastrointestinal bleeding with an overall mortality rate of less than 5%. In North America, the incidence of bleeding from ulcers is declining due to eradication of H pylori and prophylaxis with proton pump inhibitors in high-risk patients.

Portal hypertension accounts for 10–20% of upper gastrointestinal bleeding. Bleeding usually arises from esophageal varices and less commonly gastric or duodenal varices or portal hypertensive gastropathy. Approximately 25% of patients with cirrhosis have medium to large esophageal ...

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