Is Heartburn a Symptom of Gallstones?

Find out the what, why, and worries of gallbladder disease

Stomach ache
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When thinking about gallstones, you may think of a painful attack. However, the truth is that most individuals with gallstones, more than 80%, will never experience a symptom in their lifetime. What's more: the likelihood of experiencing symptoms diminishes with age. 

So, what are these silent stones, where do they come from, and when should you worry about them? Read on.

What Are Gallstones

Gallstones form when there is an imbalance in the composition of bile.

The result is hard stones that are made of crystallized cholesterol—which is between 37 and 86% of cases; pigment — which is 2 and 27% of cases; or a mixture of the two — which is between 4 and 16% of cases. When these stones travel into and block the ducts of the biliary tract, the pathway between the liver and pancreas to the first part of the small intestine, a sudden sharp pain is felt in the upper right area of the abdomen.

What Causes Gallstones

There are a variety of reasons why gallstones develop. Obesity and diets high in refined carbohydrates — such as white bread and pasta — and fat, as well as low-calorie diets and rapid weight loss, have been associated with gallstones. In addition, the possibility of developing gallstone disease increases with age, and sex may also have something to do with it. Turns out that women are more likely to have gallstones than men; thanks to exposure to the hormones estrogen and progesterone.


Symptoms of Gallstones

It is the other 20% of those with gallstones that can experience intense pain or that "gallbladder attack." These attacks will most often occur after a person eats a fatty meal, though they can occur at other times, such as during the night.

Only 1 to 4% of individual with gallstones will develop symptoms annually.

 Symptoms of gallstones can include:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen that rapidly worsens and can last from a few minutes to several hours
  • Pain in the back between the shoulder blades
  • Pain under the right shoulder
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Intolerance of fatty foods
  • Gas
  • Indigestion
  • Heartburn

If you have any of the above symptoms along with any of the following symptoms, you should see your doctor right away:

  • Chills
  • Low-grade fever
  • Jaundice (yellowish color of the skin or whites of the eyes)
  • Clay-colored stools

At this point, your doctor may order liver function tests and an abdominal ultrasound. Your physician may also opt to run these tests if you are suffering from chronic abdominal or gastrointestinal symptoms. 

For further information on gallstones:

Lee JY, Keane MG, Pereira S. "Diagnosis and treatment of gallstone disease." Practitioner. 2015 Jun; 259(1783):15-9, 2. Review.

"Common Gastrointestinal Problems - Gallstones." American College of Gastroenterology. 9 Sep 2008

"Gallstones." National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease (NIDDK), November 2013.

"Gallstones." American College of Gastroenterology. 9 Sep 2008

"Gallstones." NIH Publication No. 07-2897 July 2007. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghour (NDDIC). 9 Sep 2008