Are Heartburn and Upper-Back Pain Normal with Acid Reflux?

It is not typical of acid reflux to feel heartburn and upper-back pain. It is typical of another condition related to digestive acids, however.

Heartburn is the sensation we feel when acids in our stomach rise into our esophagus, causing heartburn symptoms like discomfort and sometimes even regurgitation. Most people will feel the effects of this process, known as acid reflux, on occasion.

Sudden upper-back pain in people who suffer from heartburn caused by acid reflux may be experiencing an uncommon symptom of gallstones, especially if there is also the presence of upper right abdominal pain accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Gallstones that cause this type of pain require medical attention because it can be life-threatening.

Though there is no clear link between gallstones and heartburn, the gallbladder is a part of the digestive system. The fatty foods that can cause acid reflux and heartburn to occur in some people are also processed by the gallbladder.

Diets that are high in cholesterol from fatty foods can cause the cholesterol and bile pigments to form small stones, hardened compounds, in the gallbladder. Gallstones are usually asymptotic, which just means that you may not even know they are there until something changes.


The Difference between Acid Reflux and Gallstone Symptoms

Most people who do experience the rare symptoms of gallstones only feel pain because a gallstone is stuck in a bile duct that carries gastric acids from the liver to the intestines. People who are familiar with heartburn will notice that the pain associated with gallstones is not the normal pain, nausea, or vomiting that they associate with acid reflux.

People who suffer from food related heartburn and upper-back pain for other reasons, such as a back injury may only notice symptoms of there is nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain involved. However, most people report that the pain associated with gallstones is unique and persistent. Other symptoms of gallstones include jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin), dark urine, and stool that is clay colored.

When it becomes a life-threatening problem, it is one of the few human organs that can be removed with little negative effect on the rest of the digestive system. Conditions that may arise in the gallbladder include gallstones, cholecystitis, gallbladder cancer, and gallstone pancreatitis.

Gallstones and gallbladder disease can cause symptoms that feel like those associated with acid reflux and can be triggered by similar foods. Heartburn and regurgitation are rare symptoms of this disorder but it should be noted that some of the most common symptoms of gallbladder conditions feel much like those of acid reflux.

Most people do not experience symptoms from gallstones (about 90%). For those that do have symptoms, you may feel pain sometimes during the first 10 years that gallstones have formed. After this time, there is less chance that symptoms will exist.


Who is at Risk for Heartburn and Upper-Back Pain

Chronic heartburn can increase the chance of gallbladder problems. There are also quite a few risk factors associated with gallbladder disease that are also directly associated with heartburn and acid reflux related conditions.

People who are older than 55 years of age are at a high-risk for developing gallstones. This age group is also more susceptible to heartburn because of a weakened lower esophageal sphincter, the muscle that helps to keep acid out of the esophagus.

Rapid weight loss can increase the risk of heartburn and upper-back pain caused by gallstones. Gallstones are known to develop in 25% of people who are significantly obese and take on a strict diet to lose weight. Obesity is also a leading risk factor for acid reflux. Also, gastric bypass surgery to assist in curing obesity causes an increase in heartburn and gallstones.

Pregnancy significantly increases the rate of heartburn and back pain in general. It is a significant risk factor in the development of gallstones, especially in families with a history of gallbladder conditions. (This is true for gallstones in general.)


When to Seek Medical Treatment

Heartburn and upper-back pain can be unrelated. If you have acid reflux and injury, you may experience this pain occasionally or frequently. When the onset of pain is sudden, is accompanied by nausea and vomiting, or if you have diabetes or an immune system deficiency it is best to seek a doctor’s opinion right away.

Many doctors will wait to see if your symptoms persist or go away. Many people are able to pass a gallstone through the bile duct and never have symptoms again. Most doctors will want to wait to perform surgery until you’ve had gallstone symptoms more than once.

Rarely, someone with no symptoms at all may need surgery. This procedure is only performed in cases where a person is at great risk for developing cancer, has sickle cell disease, or is in the process of obtaining an organ transplant.

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