Body Noise: What It Means, What to Do


Your jaw pops like a bowl of Rice Krispies—in meetings, at mealtime, during candlelight moments. Is it a joint that needs fixing, or just an annoying sound you can live with? Most body noises, although embarrassing, are harmless, but occasionally theyre a signal that somethings not quite right. Here, we decode what your body is telling you—from top to bottom—and what to do about it.

Snuffling and snorting
Why: Youre congested. The noises are typically the result of mucus thats blocking the flow of air in your nose, says David Brodner, MD, an ear, nose, and throat specialist in Boca Raton, Fla., and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Otolaryngology.

What to do: Flushing with a saline rinse can clear excess mucus that comes with a common cold or seasonal allergies, says Melissa Pynnonen, MD, assistant professor of otolaryngology at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. Several brands of saline rinse are available at drugstores, or mix up your own saline with eight ounces of warm water and one-quarter teaspoon salt. Put half of the solution in each nostril using a syringe or nasal spray bottle; itll flow out of the opposite nostril. Repeat on the other side, and then blow your nose.

When to get help: See a doctor if your snuffling is accompanied by bleeding or yellow-green drainage, or if the congestion gets worse rather than better after five days, lasts more than 10 days, or is accompanied by headache or facial pain, Dr. Brodner says. You could have a sinus infection, typically treated with antibiotic.

Belching and gurgling
Why: Youve swallowed excess air, either while eating (soup is a common culprit because air is taken in with each spoonful) or conversing or both. But burps and gurgles can also point to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a common condition that often develops from overeating or pressure on the stomach (up to 50% of pregnant women suffer from it). Stomach acid seeps up into your esophagus, where it can cause heartburn, burping, chest pain, sore throat, hoarseness, bad breath—and, in serious cases, gurgling noises caused by regurgitation of food or acid.

What to do: Well, like your mom said, dont talk with your mouth full. That can cut back on burping, as can limiting gum-chewing and fizzy beverages. To avoid GERD, eat small, frequent meals, skip foods that worsen the symptoms (like caffeinated drinks, onions, chocolate, and garlic), and nix postmeal naps, says Robert Maisel, MD, professor of otolaryngology at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis. You may also get relief from a nonprescription antacid.

When to get help: If you experience symptoms of GERD more than once a week, particularly at night, visit your doctor. He or she may recommend a prescription antacid or order an endoscopy to rule out esophageal cancer, which can result from untreated GERD. If symptoms worsen, you may need surgery, although this is rare, Dr. Maisel says.

Next Page: Growling tummy and passing gas [ pagebreak ]Growling tummy
Why: Usually its just contractions of stomach and intestinal muscles—a normal part of digestion. Stress can kick muscle contractions into high gear, too, which might explain why your belly is embarrassingly vocal every time youre in an important meeting.

What to do: Track your symptoms. Certain foods—like dairy products and high-carb items—might raise the noise factor for you. If the noises really crank up while youre menstruating, try taking 250 milligrams of magnesium at bedtime for a few days preperiod to ease the gas and constipation that often cause gut gurgles, says Diana Taylor, RN, PhD, author of Taking Back the Month: A Personalized Solution for Managing PMS and Enhancing Your Health.

When to get help: If abdominal noises are really bothering you in social situations, work on eliminating stress through yoga or meditation, or ask your doctor about antispasmodic medication, sometimes prescribed for stress-related gut problems, says Joel Levine, MD, a gastroenterologist at the University of Colorado Medical School in Denver.

Passing gas
Why: Flatulence, like burping, is a normal way the body expels swallowed air or gases produced during digestion. Its normal to pass gas up to 20 times a day, says Michael Levitt, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Minneapolis. Food triggers? Beans, popular sugar substitutes like xylitol and sorbitol (theyre poorly absorbed carbs), some fat-free potato chips, fructose (a sugar found in many processed foods made with the sweetener high-fructose corn syrup), and lactose (dairy woes, anyone?). Dairy can also lead to stinky gas, as can sulfurous foods such as broccoli and cabbage. You may get more gassy during your period if youre typically prone to diarrhea or constipation, or if you succumb to chocolate cravings (the sugar-and-carboyhdrate combo ups gasiness).

What to do: Eat slowly, and cut down on the beans, processed foods, and sodas for less risk of cutting the you know what later.

When to get help: See a doc if youre having gas with abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea or constipation: This may point to irritable bowel syndrome, intestinal inflammation, or a food allergy.

Next Page: Snoring and cracking joints [ pagebreak ]Snoring
Why: The sound is generated when your throat muscles and tissues become overly relaxed and then vibrate when you breathe. It often accompanies congestion, but some people are just more prone to snoring than others. Drinking alcohol before bed can also cause you to saw logs.

What to do: Sleep on your side when youre congested, or try Breathe Right nasal strips ($12.99 for 30; at drugstores). Losing pounds if youre significantly overweight can also help (less tissue to vibrate). And lay off the booze before bedtime, too.

When to get help: If you wake yourself up with snoring or choking sounds, you might have sleep apnea, a serious breathing problem that can put you at risk for heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure, says Steven Koenig, MD, a sleep-disorders expert at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville. Fortunately, a number of treatments are available.

Joints that crackle
Why: Noise without pain—usually caused by air bubbles in the protective fluid cushioning your joints—is harmless, though it may signal that youre stressed. “When stress levels rise, the joints in the neck tighten and tend to crack more,” says Stephen Fealy, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and sports-medicine specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

What to do: Do neck rolls every 45 to 60 minutes. Try regular yoga or massage to ease stress. And for mild joint aches, try an OTC painkiller.

When to get help: See a doctor if you experience any grinding or popping that comes with pain, locking, swelling, or limited motion. This could signal an exercise injury, a temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder if the pain is in your jaw, or the onset of osteoarthritis, a condition that affects about 28 million women, usually beginning after middle age when cartilage starts to break down. If youre diagnosed with arthritis, your doctor may prescribe exercise, a prescription-strength pain reliever, a cortisone injection, or physical therapy. Even acupuncture may help, experts say.