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Understanding Body Noises

When are these sounds cause for concern

Creaky knees. Ringing ears. Rumbling stomachs. Why are our bodies so noisy?

Even though it can be embarrassing, annoying or even worrisome, this organic symphony is perfectly normal most of the time. 

"Our bodies are living organisms, and noises are part of our bodies' functions," says Lisa Ravindra, MD, a primary care physician at Rush University Medical Center.  

In some cases, however, the snaps, crackles, pops and other strange sounds you hear should trigger an alarm. Here, Ravindra discusses some common bodily noises, why they happen and when to see a doctor.

Creaky joints

Hearing a pop or crack from our joints is very common, especially as we age. It's called crepitus, and typically, there is no need to worry.

Here's why it happens: Cartilage rubs across a joint surface or other soft tissues that support, connect and protect structures, such as tendons, ligaments, muscles and blood vessels. And as we age, cartilage becomes less smooth. This causes bones and tissues to rub together as we move, making our joints creak or pop. 

When to be concerned. "If pain, discomfort or swelling accompanies the popping or cracking, go to a primary care doctor or primary care sports medicine specialist to be evaluated," Ravindra says.

The pain could indicate an injury. Doctors will look for a meniscus tear, when twisting or over-extension rips the C-shaped cartilage pads attached to the leg bones; or patellofemoral syndrome, when a joint becomes stressed due to overuse, an injury or bearing too much weight.

Discomfort and swelling could signal osteoarthritis, when wear and tear diminishes the cartilage in the knees.

Depending on the diagnosis, you may need medications, physical therapy or surgery to relieve symptoms or correct the problem. Exercise and weight loss may also help alleviate joint pain.

Ringing ears

"Tinnitus is the term doctors use when you hear ringing, buzzing, hissing or roaring noises in your ears," Ravindra says.

These are the most common causes of tinnitus:

  • Inner ear damage. Exposure to loud noises can damage the hair cells in your inner ear, making them send signals to the brain to hear sounds that are not really there.
  • Normal aging. Damage to the hair cells can also occur naturally as we age.
  • Earwax blockage.

Less frequently, tinnitus results from the following:

  • Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders. Tinnitus is a common complaint in people who suffer from TMJ, which is caused by grinding your teeth.
  • Head and neck injuries. Trauma is associated with ringing ears.
  • Certain medications. Common culprits include ACE inhibitors, prescribed to control high blood pressure; Lasix diuretics; non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications; some antibiotics; and sertraline, a commonly prescribed antidepressant.
  • Infections.

Most often, however, the cause of tinnitus remains unknown, and it comes and goes on its own. If the root of the problem is found, treatment will vary depending on the cause.

When to be concerned. Sometimes tinnitus can go on for weeks or even years. See your primary care doctor for an evaluation if it is interfering with work, sleep and functioning throughout the day. You may be referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist.

Your doctor might suggest treatments, such as biofeedback and cognitive behavioral therapy, that can help you cope when you hear these phantom — and annoying — sounds.

If in addition to tinnitus you experience facial weakness, sudden hearing loss or dizziness, get help right away. These red flag symptoms could indicate a tumor, stroke, infection, trauma or other serious — even life-threatening — problem. 

Sometimes tinnitus can go on for weeks or even years. See your primary care doctor for an evaluation if it is interfering with work, sleep and functioning throughout the day.

Rhythmic whooshing sound

Sometimes you can hear a rhythmic whooshing sound in time with your heartbeat.

This sound is called pulsatile tinnitus, and it becomes more common as we grow older, Ravindra says.

Pulsatile tinnitus can be due to hardening of the arteries near the ears. Hardening of the arteries happens when cholesterol and other substances build up. The build-up causes blood flow to become more forceful, making it easier for your ear to detect the heartbeats.

When to be concerned. Always see your primary care doctor if you experience pulsatile tinnitus. Occasionally, this sound can indicate potentially more serious problems.

"In rare cases, it could be caused by a tumor in the head or neck, an aneurysm, high blood pressure or a malformation in the blood vessel," Ravindra explains.

Depending on the cause, you might need medications or surgery to correct the problem.

Rumbling stomach

When the contents of your gastrointestinal tract move, your bowels make gurgling or rumbling sounds.

This is called borborgymus, and it is completely normal. The walls of the GI tract contract to mix and squeeze food through intestines so it can be digested. That creates the gurgling noise you sometimes hear after you've eaten.

As for a rumbling tummy? "When you're hungry, a hormone-like substance in your brain activates a desire to eat. That hormone-like substance sends signals to the intestines and stomach to contract, and the movement causes that rumbling sound," Ravindra explains.

While you can't always prevent these sounds, the good news is that they aren't usually signs of trouble.

"If the sounds come when you are hungry, try eating five small meals per day instead of three larger ones," Ravindra suggests. "That can keep you from feeling hungry and triggering the chain of events that produce the noises."

When to be concerned. While everyone's stomach rumbles, call your primary care doctor if you experience pain, bloating or changes in bowel movements with these sounds.

"Any change from a person's normal bowel movements — from having more frequent loose stools to a total lack of bowel movements — is a cause for concern, especially if the change is accompanied by abdominal pain or bloating," Ravindra says.

That's because pain and bloating could signal a serious or chronic health problem, including appendicitis, an obstructed bowel or an autoimmune disease such as celiac disease. Depending on the diagnosis, you might need medication, diet modification or even surgery to cure the problem.

And, of course, any time you have severe abdominal pain that comes on suddenly, call 911 or go to the emergency room right away.

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