What to Do About Those Embarrassing Bodily Noises

The other night, I slapped my husband. No, not hard and awful in a mean-spirited way, just a slap on the wrist. I'd had enough. The sound of his cracking knuckles had officially driven me over the edge (for the umpteenth time) and my hand just flew out reflexively toward his.


"Why do you always have to do that?"

"It just feels good."

It takes a lot of patience to sit next to someone who loves to crack their knuckles.

Which got me thinking about bodily noises. You know, those whistles, pops, rumbles and grumbles (likely ones you seldom heard before you were married … but that's for another time).

What's behind them?

Sometimes they're embarrassing—like when they happen involuntarily (as in the case of burps, flatulence, stomach rumbles). Other times, they're completely voluntary and the noise is just a by-product the action—like when that certain someone cracks their knuckles (ahem).

But what they all are is all too common. Here's some background on these common bodily noises:

Burping. The air that is sometimes destined for the other direction (more on flatulence later) can be forced upward instead, introducing itself with a loud belch. This intestinal gas, caused by movements coming from the upper esophageal sphincter, makes its way upward from the stomach through the esophagus (the muscular tube that carries food and liquids from the mouth to the stomach).

Is it a problem? Only if you burp a lot or you get a burning sensation or foul taste when you do it. That could mean you have a condition called GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), where stomach contents spill upward into the esophagus. It can lead to more serious health problems over time like esophagitis, an irritation of the esophagus, swallowing difficulties caused by strictures, respiratory problems or Barrett's esophagus, where the tissue lining the esophagus is replaced by tissue similar to the intestine's lining.

By making a few lifestyle tweaks you might be able to find relief:

  • Lose weight (if necessary).
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing around the tummy area. A tight waistband can compress the area and increase reflux.
  • After meals, remain upright for about three hours.
  • Raise the head of your bed by 6 to 8 inches by putting wood blocks under the bedposts. (Just using extra pillows to prop yourself up is not helpful.)
  • Avoid smoking and being around people who smoke.

Stomach rumbles and grumbles. It's not only when you're hungry that you have a growling stomach: you could simply be hearing the movement of the (hollow) intestines echoing through the stomach. It's usually nothing more than normal digestion.

Sometimes excessive noise may signal an underlying gastrointestinal disorder like irritable bowel syndrome, but along with this, you'll have other signs and symptoms like bloating, cramping, diarrhea or excess gas.

On the other hand, it's not uncommon for those bowel sounds to be entirely absent if you've received spinal anesthesia, abdominal surgery or take certain drugs (such as opiates) that slow movement in the intestines.

Stomach noise is usually completely normal, although it can be socially awkward at the wrong time. Accept the fact that your stomach, whether empty or full, is busy at work behind the scenes. Steering clear of gaseous foods may help quell the noises; so can cutting down on artificial sweeteners like those found in sugarless gum or diet sodas.

Joint cracks and pops. OK, it's time we got to the bottom of this one. Is it dangerous to crack your joints (specifically, your knuckles)? Will it lead to arthritis? That annoying cracking sound occurs when nitrogen gas is temporarily pulled into the joint. The latest research, published in the April 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, says no. But, other researchers did find a downside to the habit (besides annoyance by the people near the knuckle crackers): They found that habitual knuckle crackers were more likely to have both hand swelling and lower grip strength.

And what about the snaps, crackles and creaks that are not voluntary—the ones coming from your knees, shoulders, hips and jaw? Usually, if there's no pain involved, the sound could simply be coming from a (harmless) break in the seal of the lubricating synovial fluid that fills the capsule of the joint. Thank aging and changes in muscle mass for some cracking sounds, as tendons snap over tissues because of minor adjustments in their gliding path.

But, if the sound occurs at the moment of an injury or there is pain and swelling along with it, you may need to be checked for possible damage to the joint, such as loose cartilage or injured ligaments.

Flatulence. There's no easy way to say it: flatulence, gas, farting, passing wind—it usually tops the list of most embarrassing body sounds. When gas moves out of the digestive system downward, it can cause major discomfort or distress. Most of the time, it's not serious—except maybe to your ego (especially if it strikes when you're stuck in a crowded elevator or a meeting).

When we eat or drink, not only do we swallow saliva but, along with it, tiny amounts of air, which accumulate in the gut. When the food is digested, gases—mainly hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide—are released. As those gases build, the body looks for a way to get rid of the excess amounts. When food has not been digested properly, sulfur is released, thus producing a foul smell.

Though passing gas is a normal biological process (some estimates say the average human does it 15 times each day), it could be troublesome if:

  • Episodes occur frequently and often involuntarily.
  • Gas is consistently foul-smelling.
  • There are sharp pains (or cramps), knotting or a bloated feeling in the abdomen.

The good news is that in the majority of cases excessive gas can be controlled with a change of diet and lifestyle. Foods that generally digest easier include bananas, citrus fruits, grapes, lettuce, potatoes and rice. If gas is a problem, stay away from foods like broccoli, beans, artichokes, cabbage, onions and sweet potatoes, which are commonly tougher to digest and more likely to cause gas.

Eating smaller and more frequent meals—and eating slowly—may also help cut down on the gas.

You also might want to read:
The Top 2 Ways to Improve Digestion
Natural Remedies for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

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