Abdominal sounds (bowel sounds) are made by the movement of the intestines as they push food through. The intestines are hollow, so bowel sounds echo through the abdomen much like the sounds heard from water pipes.
Most bowel sounds are harmless. They simply mean that the gastrointestinal tract is working. A health care provider can check abdominal sounds by listening to the abdomen with a stethoscope (auscultation).
Most bowel sounds are normal. However, there are some cases in which abnormal sounds can indicate a problem.
Ileus is a condition in which there is a lack of intestinal activity. Many medical conditions may lead to ileus. This problem can cause gas, fluids, and the contents of the intestines to build up and break open (rupture) the bowel wall. The provider may be unable to hear any bowel sounds when listening to the abdomen.
Reduced (hypoactive) bowel sounds include a reduction in the loudness, tone, or regularity of the sounds. They are a sign that intestinal activity has slowed.
Hypoactive bowel sounds are normal during sleep. They also occur normally for a short time after the use of certain medicines and after abdominal surgery. Decreased or absent bowel sounds often indicate constipation.
Increased (hyperactive) bowel sounds can sometimes be heard even without a stethoscope. Hyperactive bowel sounds mean there is an increase in intestinal activity. This may happen with diarrhea or after eating.
Abdominal sounds are always evaluated together with symptoms such as:
- Presence or absence of bowel movements
If bowel sounds are hypoactive or hyperactive and there are other abnormal symptoms, you should continue to follow up with your provider.
For example, no bowel sounds after a period of hyperactive bowel sounds can mean there is a rupture of the intestines, or strangulation of the bowel and death (necrosis) of the bowel tissue.
Very high-pitched bowel sounds may be a sign of early bowel obstruction.