Abdominal (bowel) sounds

Abdominal, or bowel, sounds refer to noises made within the small and large intestines, typically during digestion. They’re characterized by hollow sounds that may be similar to the sounds of water moving through pipes.

Bowel sounds are most often a normal occurrence. However, frequent, unusually loud sounds or the lack of abdominal sounds may indicate an underlying condition within the digestive system.

Abdominal sounds are sounds made by the intestine. They may be described by the following words:

  • gurgling
  • rumbling
  • growling
  • high-pitched

Abdominal sounds alone are not usually a cause for concern. However, the presence of other symptoms that accompany the sounds may indicate an underlying illness. These symptoms may include:

Contact your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms or abdominal pain. Prompt medical care can help you avoid potentially serious complications.

The abdominal sounds you hear are most likely related to the movement of food, liquids, digestive juices, and air through your intestines.

When your intestines process food, your abdomen may grumble or growl. The walls of the gastrointestinal tract are mostly made up of muscle. When you eat, the walls contract to mix and squeeze the food through your intestines so it can be digested. This process is called peristalsis. Peristalsis is generally responsible for the rumbling sound you hear after eating. It can occur several hours after eating and even at night when you’re trying to sleep.

Hunger can also cause abdominal sounds. According to an article published by the Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics of North America, when you’re hungry, hormone-like substances in the brain activate the desire to eat, which then sends signals to the intestines and stomach. As a result, the muscles in your digestive system contract and cause these sounds.

Abdominal sounds may either be classified as normal, hypoactive, or hyperactive. Hypoactive, or reduced, bowel sounds often indicate that intestinal activity has slowed down. On the other hand, hyperactive bowel sounds are louder sounds related to increased intestinal activity that can be heard by others. They often occur after eating or when you have diarrhea.

While occasional hypoactive and hyperactive bowel sounds are normal, frequent experiences on either end of the spectrum and the presence of other abnormal symptoms may indicate a medical problem.

Other causes

Most of the sounds you hear in your bowel are due to normal digestion, but abdominal sounds with accompanying symptoms may be due to a more serious underlying condition or the use of certain medications.

Hyperactive, hypoactive, or missing bowel sounds may be attributed to:

  • trauma
  • an infection within the digestive tract
  • a hernia, which is when part of an organ or other tissue pushes through a weak area of the abdominal wall muscle
  • a blood clot or low blood flow to the intestines
  • abnormal blood potassium levels
  • abnormal blood calcium levels
  • a tumor
  • a blockage of the bowels, or intestinal obstruction
  • a temporary slowing of intestinal movement, or ileus

Other causes of hyperactive bowel sounds are:

Causes of hypoactive abdominal sounds or the absence of bowel sounds are:

  • perforated ulcers
  • certain medications, such as codeine
  • general anesthesia
  • abdominal surgery
  • radiation injury
  • damage to the intestines
  • partial or complete blockage of the bowels
  • infection of the abdominal cavity, or peritonitis

If abnormal 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. They’ll also use a stethoscope to listen for any abnormal bowel sounds. This step is called auscultation. Bowel obstructions typically produce very loud, high-pitched sounds. These sounds can often be heard without using a stethoscope.

Your doctor may also perform some tests:

  • A CT scan is used to take X-ray images of the abdominal area.
  • An endoscopy is a test that uses a camera attached to a small, flexible tube to capture pictures within the stomach or intestines.
  • Blood tests are used to rule out infection, inflammation, or organ damage.

Treatment will depend on the cause of your symptoms. Normal bowel sounds don’t require any treatment. You may want to limit your intake of foods that produce gas. These include:

  • fruits
  • beans
  • artificial sweeteners
  • carbonated drinks
  • whole-grain products
  • certain vegetables like cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli

Avoid dairy if you have lactose intolerance.

Swallowing air by eating too quickly, drinking through a straw, or chewing gum can also lead to excess air in your digestive tract.

Probiotics may be helpful with rumbling bowel sounds, but only in those individuals who also have irritable bowel syndrome.

It’s important to remember that most of these sounds can only be heard by you. Most other people are unaware of them or unconcerned.

If you have signs of a medical emergency, such as bleeding, bowel damage, or severe obstruction, you’ll need to be admitted to the hospital for treatment. At the hospital, a tube may be placed through your mouth or nose and into your stomach or intestines to empty them out. You’ll usually not be able to eat or drink anything afterward to allow your intestines to rest.

For some people, receiving fluids by vein and allowing the intestinal system to rest will be enough to treat the problem. Other people may need surgery. For example, if you have a serious infection or injury to your intestines or if the intestines are found to be completely blocked, you may need surgery to correct the problem and treat any damage.

Medications are available for certain gastrointestinal illnesses like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. If you’re diagnosed with one of these conditions, your doctor may prescribe medication for you.

The outlook for abdominal sounds depends on the severity of the problem. More often than not, sounds in your digestive system are normal and shouldn’t be a cause for concern. If your abdominal sounds seem unusual or they’re accompanied by other symptoms, seek medical care right away to reduce the risk of complications.

In rare cases, certain complications can be life-threatening if left untreated. Intestinal obstructions, in particular, can be dangerous. The obstruction can lead to tissue death if it cuts off the supply of blood to part of your intestine. Any tear in the stomach or intestinal wall can lead to infection in the abdominal cavity. This can be fatal.

Other conditions and diseases like tumors or Crohn’s disease may require long-term treatment and monitoring.