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Loud Stomach Noises and Bowel Sounds in the Elderly

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Changes in digestion and bowel habits are among the more common age-related disturbances in the body. It can vary from a little indigestion and easily irritated bowels to severe heartburn, stomach pains and changes in appetite. Therefore the elderly are at times known to be fussy eaters and often complaining about some bowel symptom or the other. One of the common symptoms is loud stomach bowel sounds. The medical term for this is borborygmi (singular ~ borborygmus).

Stomach and bowel sounds are normal. However, some of these sounds can be a sign of serious disease like bowel obstruction or fluid in the abdomen. However, there is a point where stomach and bowel sounds can become excessive, loud and embarrassing. It is similar to flatulence – a potentially embarrassing social problem that may be a symptom of some underlying disorder of the bowels.

Normal Stomach and Bowel Sounds

The gastrointestinal tract is a very “busy” cavity. Food that enters the gut is constantly in motion. First, it is broken down mechanically and chemically. Then nutrients are absorbed. Fluid is pumped into the gut along with digestive enzymes and even gas from the blood. Later water is drawn out of the gut. Waste matter is transformed from a fluid mush to a solid stool. Bacteria in the bowels keep breaking down the residual nutrients and wastes, causing gas formation. When the time is right, strong contractions push this waste out of the bowels.

Given the wide range of activities in the gut, it is not possible for it to be “silent”. The movement of fluid – splashing and squirting – along with the bubbling of gas all contribute to the naturally noisy bowels. In fact these stomach and bowel sounds are a good sign of a healthy functioning bowel. It may become slightly louder and more frequent when hungry, sometimes just after eating and when nervous, but the bowel sounds are actually present all day yet cannot be heard. When these sounds become very loud, excessive and are accompanied by other gut symptoms then there may be a cause for concern.

Causes of Excessive and Loud Sounds

The causes of excessive stomach and bowel sounds or loud noises may not be abnormal if it occurs occasionally, eases shortly thereafter without medication and is not accompanied by any other sounds. Abnormal sounds may arise with one or more of the following bowel disturbances:

  • Hypermotility where the movement of food through the gut is faster than normal. This is caused by overactivity of the muscles in the gut wall pushing the food along faster and more forcefully.
  • Partial obstruction of the stomach or bowel which hampers the movement of food. A complete obstruction eventually leads to an absence of bowel sounds.
  • Excessive gas in the bowel which may be caused by carbonated beverages, swallowing air when eating, overactivity of bowel bacteria, presence of disease causing bacteria and problems with digestion and absorption of nutrients.
  • Excessive fluid which is dumped into the gut from the body in larger than normal quantities and may not be reabsorbed in the colon. This is often seen with conditions that cause diarrhea.
  • Problems with digestion and absorption of nutrients even when the gas content is not excessive. These unprocessed nutrients in the bowel can also draw water into the bowels and encourage bacterial overgrowth.

It is important that excessive and loud bowel sounds are investigated. The elderly are more prone to various bowel diseases, some of which are serious like cancer, and early intervention is therefore crucial. The idea of the ‘burpy farty’ senior is a dangerous misconception as it passes off possible symptoms of diseases as a normal part of getting older. Regular bowel examinations, especially in a person who has pre-existing bowel disease or is considered at risk, should therefore be undertaken as routine screening possibly once a year.


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