The effects of general anesthesia or other surgery-related factors can sometimes trigger heartburn in the hours after the operation, but medication can usually ease discomfort.

Common complications and side effects of surgery include thirst, restlessness, and, of course, pain at the site of the operation. But heartburn, also called acid reflux, is another frequent complaint, even if the surgery was unrelated to the stomach or any part of the digestive system.

Post-operative heartburn is usually temporary and may be treated with medications designed to reduce stomach acid production. As with any issue that develops after surgery, be sure to notify your healthcare team if severe heartburn doesn’t subside in the days following your operation.

This article takes a closer look at the causes and treatment of post-surgical heartburn, as well as symptoms to notify your healthcare team about.

Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid moves up into the esophagus, irritating the lining of the esophagus and causing a burning sensation in the chest.

Sometimes, overproduction of stomach acid forces acid up into the esophagus. In other cases, the muscular rings around the esophagus that normally block acid from moving upward become weak or fail to tighten effectively.

General anesthesia is usually to blame for heartburn during and after surgery. Anesthesia can cause the sphincters to relax too much, allowing whatever acid is in the stomach to move into the esophagus.

Minor acid reflux is usually uncomfortable but not risky. However, if you breathe stomach acid into the lungs, it can cause aspiration pneumonia. Severe cases may require supplemental oxygen and medications or other procedures to clear the lungs.

Heartburn after surgery can occur after any kind of operation. For example, a 2019 study of anesthesia-related complications after aortic heart valve surgery suggests that nearly 9% of individuals who had the procedure experienced acid reflux during the first 12 hours of their recovery.

Procedures such as sleeve gastrectomy, a type of bariatric surgery, and other operations involving the stomach may be more likely to produce acid reflux because of the trauma to the stomach.

If the surgery was specifically done to reduce the size of the stomach, the pressure inside the newly formed stomach may be higher initially and trigger greater stomach acid production.

Vomiting, which may occur in response to the anesthesia medication, is also common after surgery, according to the American Society of Anesthesiologists. It may be responsible for bringing acid up from the stomach.

Your healthcare team may suggest that you let the heartburn ease on its own during the first several hours after surgery. Drinking small amounts of water slowly may also help dilute the stomach acid in your system and relieve some discomfort.

You may also find relief with over-the-counter medications, such as:

These medications, especially H2 blockers, are not intended for long-term daily use. If you’re not getting relief in the days following your surgery, call your doctor. You may be prescribed a stronger medication.

For some people, taking a PPI prior to surgery can reduce or prevent heartburn afterward.

In fact, a 2020 study suggests that people without a history of acid reflux can reduce heartburn symptoms and post-operative nausea and vomiting by taking a PPI before surgery.

Avoiding carbonated beverages and spicy foods or other heartburn triggers may help relieve heartburn, too. You may need to elevate your head when you sleep to help prevent further acid reflux.

Be sure to follow your doctor’s advice about fasting prior to surgery to help lower the risk of post-operative heartburn. Less food in your stomach usually corresponds to less stomach acid production.

If you experience acid reflux and know the foods and beverages that trigger acid reflux symptoms, be sure to avoid those items in the day or two leading up to your surgery.

Some postsurgical symptoms are common and to be expected. These include:

  • delirium, a sense of confusion and fuzzy thinking that often affects older adults
  • itching, sometimes the result of pain medications used as part of anesthesia
  • muscle aches, including the diaphragm and other muscles involved with breathing
  • nausea and vomiting, related to the medication or the nature of the surgery
  • pain at the site of the incision and the part of the body most directly affected by the surgery
  • shivering and chills, which is a common post-surgical complication of anesthesia
  • sore throat, usually the result of the tube placed down the throat to help with breathing

Before leaving the hospital or surgery center, talk with your healthcare team about what to do if these symptoms or other complications linger or worsen once you are home.

A 2022 study found that complications leading to negative outcomes can affect as many as 30% of people undergoing general surgery. However, research noted that many of these individuals had:

  • a high risk for surgery
  • a high body mass index
  • emergency surgery

If you experience lingering symptoms or signs of infection, such as redness and swelling at the incision site or pus or fluid leaking from the incision, call your doctor’s office as soon as possible. The same is true if you have a fever or a prolonged period of delirium.

Heartburn after surgery is a common occurrence. Drinking small amounts of water can help your symptoms resolve within the 12 hours of the operation.

If you are in a hospital setting, don’t hesitate to tell your nurses if you are experiencing acid reflux. Depending on other medications you’re taking, you may be able to take an antacid or other medication to reduce stomach acid production.

If heartburn becomes a nagging problem days after your surgery, contact your healthcare team and describe your symptoms. Relief may come from modifying your diet for a little longer and a short course of medications. But it’s always best to tell your doctor about any symptoms after a surgery.