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Burps, gas, and other body noises

Know what it really means when your body talks to you

Published: March 12, 2015 07:00 PM

“My body talks to me,” the former high school teacher remarked, with a twinkle in his eyes. “My stomach makes noise—I have gas up and gas down, my neck cracks when I turn, my knees creak and pop, and I’ve got whistling in my ears.”

Despite his seemingly resigned attitude toward all of that body language, I detected underlying anxiety and thought it wise to offer some constructive advice. “OK,” I said. “Let’s take it from the top.”

Noises from the GI tract

By ”gas up” he meant belches and burps—caused by the expulsion of gas from the stomach into the esophagus and out through the mouth. Because the stomach normally doesn’t produce gas, what we burp is usually swallowed air. That can be caused by eating or drinking too fast, drinking through a straw, chewing gum, anxiety, fear, or normal swallowing. Belches and burps are not often a signal of disease unless accompanied by symptoms such as heartburn, belly pain, nausea, and vomiting. In those cases, you may want to alert your doctor.

“Gas down,” or the passage of what we call flatus, is a normal body function—it occurs 8 to 20 times daily and amounts to an average of 1½ quarts of gas per day. The odor (usually the smell of rotten eggs) is due mainly to the hydrogen sul­fide we produce during digestion, and the embarrassing sound is caused by vibration of the anal sphincters as the gas passes through.

If a patient complains of passing too much gas and isn’t experiencing any changes in bowel habits or abdominal pain—two symptoms that may point to other problems—it usually tells me he or she is eating a good diet, with plenty of fruit and vegetables. For those who want to decrease gas, I usually recommend activated charcoal or bismuth subgallate. Simethicone (Gas-X, Phazyme) does little, if anything.

Get the inside poop on abnormal bowel movements, and read more from Consumer Reports' chief medical adviser Marvin M. Lipman, M.D.

Noises from the bones

As we age, the body’s spongy cushions (inter­vertebral disks in the case of the spine, and cartilage in the case of the joints) tend to dry out from wear and tear. Sometimes they disap­­pear altogether, resulting in loss of height and disturbing sounds caused by bone grating on bone, especially with neck and knee movements.

Those creaking and cracking sounds by themselves require no medical attention. It is only when they are accompanied by pain or limitation of motion that over-the-counter anti-­inflammatory pain medication such as ibuprofen (Advil and generic) or naproxen (Aleve and generic), physical therapy, or, in severe cases, joint replacement may be warranted.

But not all joint noises are the result of aging. Many people of all ages can crack or pop finger joints. The explanation frequently offered? That the noises are due to the escape of gases that are dissolved in joint fluid.

Contrary to popular thought, knuckle crackers are no more prone to osteo­arthritis than others. But some studies show that repetitive knuckle cracking can weaken handgrip.

Noises in the ear

Tinnitus is probably the most perplexing and upset­­ting affliction. It is marked by continuous or intermittent high-pitched whistling, hissing, or ringing sounds in the ears—without an external noise source—and strikes about 50 million people in the U.S. About one in four have symptoms severe enough to interfere with normal activities, including sleep. The incidence increases with age and is often accompanied by hearing loss. Less commonly, the two problems are joined by vertigo, a spinning sensation akin to seasickness, occasionally accompanied by nausea and vomiting.

In most cases, the precise causes of tinnitus have eluded medical research, but the problem seems to be in or near the inner ear. When tinnitus is pulsatile (in sync with the heartbeat) rather than steady, a cause, such as a brain-blood vessel abnormality or a tumor, is more likely to be found.

Sometimes simply removing hardened earwax can resolve the problem, but treatment is usually aimed at masking both­er­­some sounds with recordings of “white noise”­—such as waves washing up on a shore. For severe cases, prescription drugs such as tranquilizers and antidepressants may help.  

Marvin Lipman, M.D.

Chief Medical Adviser and Medical Editor
Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the April 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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