Heartburn Following Gallbladder Surgery

Kelly Anne Spratt, D.O., Director of Women's Cardiovascular Health at the University of Pennsylvania Presbyterian Medical Center, answers your questions.

Q. Ever since I had my gallbladder out, I get heartburn or have gas up around my chest after I eat. It is very uncomfortable. I have a small hiatal hernia. I am taking Zantac, which helps some but not always. Are there any over-the-counter medicines that might help?

A. The gallbladder helps to digest fatty foods. Fats that are incompletely digested can lower the tone of the esophageal sphincter, which normally prevents acid from overflowing from the stomach into the esophagus (the "food pipe"). After your gallbladder was removed, it is possible that underlying reflux symptoms (due to the hiatal hernia) worsened if you still have a high-fat diet.

The feeling of heartburn that you are describing is the result of these digestive juices normally found in your stomach "backing up" into your esophagus. Zantac and other similar medications help decrease acid production. Antacids can also be helpful to decrease reflux symptoms. Among the most effective medications for reflux are proton pump inhibitors such as Prilosec or Prevacid.

These tips may also be helpful, as can a follow-up exam by your doctor:

  • Try not to eat too much food too quickly.
  • Do not lie down for at least two hours after eating.
  • Elevate the head of your bed 4 to 6 inches by putting blocks under the legs of the bed.
  • Avoid fatty foods, milk, mints, tomatoes, chocolate, alcohol, and caffeinated beverages.