Abdominal (bowel) sounds refer to noises made within the small and large intestines, typically during digestion. They are characterized by hollow noises that may be similar to the sound of water moving through pipes. While bowel sounds are most often a normal occurrence, frequent, unusually loud sounds or the lack of abdominal noise may indicate an underlying condition within the digestive system.
The abdominal sounds you hear are most likely related to digestion. When your intestines process food, your stomach may grumble or growl. The process can occur several hours after eating and even at night when you’re trying to sleep. Abdominal sounds often occur after eating, but may also be caused by hunger. According to the Mayo Clinic, when you are hungry, hormone-like substances in the brain activate the desire to eat, which in turn sends signals to the intestines and stomach. As a result, the muscles in your digestive system contract and cause these noises (Mayo Clinic, 2011).
Abdominal sounds may either be classified as hypoactive or hyperactive. Hypoactive (reduced) bowel sounds often indicate that intestinal activity has slowed down. On the other hand, hyperactive bowel sounds are extremely loud noises that can be heard by others. While occasional hypoactive and hyperactive bowel sounds are normal, frequent experiences on either end of the spectrum may indicate a medical problem.
Abdominal sounds with accompanying symptoms may be the result of an underlying medical condition. An increase or decrease in bowel sounds may be attributed to:
- hernias (when part of an organ pushes through a weak area of the stomach muscle)
- blood clots
- reduced blood potassium (hypokalemia)
Other causes of increased abdominal noises are:
- blockage of bowels (intestinal obstruction)
- inflammatory bowel disease (particularly Crohn’s disease)
- food allergies
- bleeding in the digestive tract
An absence of abdominal noises may indicate:
- certain medications, such as codeine
- abdominal surgery
- radiation exposure
- damage to the intestines
While abdominal sounds are often a normal byproduct of digestion, sounds that are accompanied by other symptoms may indicate an underlying illness. Symptoms may include:
- excess gas
- frequent diarrhea
- bloody stools
- heartburn that doesn’t respond to over-the-counter treatments
- unintentional and sudden weight loss
- feelings of fullness
Contact your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms or abdominal pain. Prompt medical care can help you avoid potentially serious complications.
If abdominal sounds occur with other symptoms, your doctor will perform several tests to diagnose the underlying cause. Your doctor may begin by reviewing your medical history and asking a few questions about the frequency and severity of your symptoms. Your doctor will also use a stethoscope to listen for any abnormal bowel sounds.
Your doctor may also perform the following tests:
- computed tomography (CT) scan to take X-ray images of the abdominal area
- endoscopy – a test that uses a camera attached to a small, flexible tube to capture pictures of the abdomen
- blood testing is used to rule out infection or organ damage
Treatment will depend on the cause of your symptoms. If there are signs of a medical emergency, such as bleeding, bowel damage or severe obstruction, you may need to be admitted to the hospital for treatment.
The outlook for abdominal sounds depends on the severity of the problem. More often than not, noises in your digestive system are normal. However, if you feel that abdominal noises are unusual, or if they are accompanied by other symptoms, seek medical care right away to reduce the risk of complications.