The causes of heartburn and abdominal pain are often bewildering for many patients of Premier Surgical Associates in Knoxville. The leading symptoms of both heartburn and gallbladder disease are upper abdominal pain and heartburn, which understandably sends people’s minds racing.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that what typically causes heartburn can also trigger a gallbladder attack— a diet of fatty or spicy foods, lying down after eating, being overweight, and genetics.

If the symptoms and the sources of both heartburn and gallbladder are so overlapping, how do you know which you may be experiencing? Upper abdominal pain can be caused by a variety of disorders, including acid reflux and gallbladder disease, and even medical professionals may have difficulty distinguishing among these causes. However, the location, nature, and timing of your symptoms may help clarify a diagnosis.


The gallbladder is a sac that sits in the upper right abdomen that stores bile produced by the liver. The bile aids in the digestion of the food you eat. Most of the time, the gallbladder functions normally, but when it becomes blocked or infected it can become a painful and potentially dangerous medical condition.

Being overweight, heredity, or hormones and pregnancy are common risk factors for both gallbladder attacks and gallstones. Gallbladder attacks are often triggered by diet, such as if you’ve just eaten a heavy or greasy meal. The pain usually occurs in the upper right abdomen, and may radiate to the right shoulder or back. Symptoms may also include diarrhea, fever, or chills. However, the key is that symptoms should ease after a half-hour to an hour.

In the case of gallstones, an imbalance in the bile causes pebble-like deposits to form which increases pressure on the gallbladder if they block the bile ducts. This can cause pain that, as with a gallbladder attack, may radiate to out the right shoulder or back.

The difference is that gallstones may cause mild symptoms for months or even years. The gallstones may pass on their own, but if the pain increases in intensity over time and becomes more generalized, the gallbladder may be infected.

Heartburn, or GERD

Heartburn and GERD, or Gastroesophagael Reflux Disease, is a very common medical condition, affecting up to 40% of adults. While reasons for developing GERD are numerous, diet and genetics play a role, and it’s more prominent with age and obesity.

If you have heartburn or other symptoms such as chest pain, sleep disruption, bloating, or intolerance of certain foods, you may have GERD. With GERD, the muscle valve between the esophagus and the stomach weakens, stomach acid goes back up into the esophagus. But the lining of the esophagus is not created to handle acid like the stomach can, which is why you feel heartburn.

Typically, heartburn symptoms can be alleviated by elevating the torso, managing one’s diet, and often with over-the-counter or prescribed medications. When a patient has tried lifestyle modifications and medications and still experiencing frequent symptoms, or has determined that being on medications long term is too great a risk, surgery may be an option.

When to stop guessing and seek immediate help

If heartburn pain doesn’t ease after an hour, your upper right abdomen is tender to the touch or you experience a sudden intensifying of pain, and you have a fever or the chills, your gallbladder may be diseased and you should seek medical attention. A diseased  gallbladder has the potential to be life-threatening and your gallbladder will likely need to be removed. Fortunately, the gallbladder isn’t necessary for survival, and the procedure to remove it his typically an out-patient procedure.

If you have persistent heartburn and upper abdominal discomfort, talk with your physician about the frequency and severity of your symptoms. There are several tests, although not always definitive, that can help pinpoint the source of your discomfort.

Premier Surgical Associates is the largest surgical group in the Knoxville region, providing comprehensive surgical care, with referrals from across the entire East Tennessee region. To learn more about our specialties, visit Premier Surgical Associates.