Sometimes, the noises our bodies make freak us out—and serve as a call to action (see: slide 2). But other times, they’re less worrisome—like the pop of our knees cracking when we bend down or the burps, farts, and snoring that just happen. We’re only human, right?
But which bodily noises are benign—and which ones signal something more? We asked experts to explain the science behind seven common sounds.
A Cracking From A Bone
What’s happening: When you fracture a bone, you’ll likely hear exactly what you think you’d hear: a loud, audible, and sensible cracking sound, says Scott Weiss, C.S.C.S., a New York-based sports physical therapist. You might also hear a cringe-worthy grating sound, he explains.
Should you worry? No surprise here: Broken bones are medical emergencies, says Weiss. You’ll want to call for medical attention. “You never know what vascular or neural structures are severed from the sharpness of the bones edges,” he says. Think you’ve fractured a bone on the lower half of your body? Don’t walk on it, says Weiss. If your upper body is in question, don’t reach for anything. Your spine? Wait for EMS, he says.
A Popping Knee When You Bend Down
What’s happening: That pop when you squat? It’s a sign of the sweet relief of pressure from the joints, says Weiss. Your knee isn’t the only body part that pops, either. Your hip, ankle, and foot regularly release, too. “This phenomenon is simply a release of gas from within the joint—usually nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and a few other elements,” says Weiss. Think of it as similar to putting a wet glass on a table, lifting it off, and hearing the pop, he says.
Should you worry? No need to panic here. But if you experience pain along with the pop, you’ll want to check in with your doctor, says Weiss. “In this case, you are wearing down your joints.”
A Snapping Muscle
What’s happening: Fall and hear a snap from deep down in your knee or heel? It’s usually a tendon, muscle, or ligament, says Weiss. And this sound is loud: “A snapping tendon can be heard across the room.” This can be mild, a small pulling sensation; or a complete tear off the bone.
Should you worry? If your sprain or strain is mild, you can likely treat it at home by following the RICE method (rest, ice, compression, elevation) and by taking anti-inflammatories like Advil, says Weiss. But if it’s more serious—i.e. you can’t put any weight on your foot or there is serious swelling—you might need X-rays, crutches, or physical therapy. You’ll also want to rule out a break, so best to play it safe and head to the doctor’s, he notes.
A Clicking Jaw
What’s happening: A little anatomy lesson first: The upper and lower jaw are connected by what’s called the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), says Lauren Levi, D.M.D., a clinical instructor of dentistry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Between the bones that make up this joint, there’s a disc of cartilage—it acts like a shock absorber and lubricates the joint, she explains. But sometimes, it gets pushed out of place. The ‘clicking’ sound? It may signal the disc being pushed back into place, she says.
Should you worry? Clicking is pretty common, says Levi. If you’re not in pain, there’s likely no need to run to the dentist. If your jaw kills when it clicks or you can’t open your mouth all of the way? You might have Temporomandibular Disorder (TMD), a painful condition that impacts the joint and muscles of the jaw. Get a date with your dentist on the calendar.
A Ringing In Your Ears
What’s happening: Ringing in your ears signals a problem with the hearing organ (called the cochlea) or the auditory nerve, says Eric Smouha, M.D., the director of neuro-otology and The Center for Hearing and Balance at The Mount Sinai Hospital. A loss of nerve endings that carry the frequencies of higher pitches lead to the ringing noise, he says. Sometimes, that problem is harmless, he says: aging or excessive exposure to noise. That said, any ear disease can give rise to ringing, he notes.
Should you worry? A little ringing in the ears is usually benign, says Smouha. (The likely result of front row seats.) But every so often, it can signal something more serious, he says. Ringing in only one ear, very loud ringing, or disabling ringing is also more alarming. In those cases, it's best to heed the man’s advice and get evaluated. Your doc will start with a hearing test and perhaps even call for an MRI.
What’s happening: When airflow through your mouth and nose is obstructed, we snore, says James B. Maas, Ph.D., a sleep expert and the former chair of psychology at Cornell. This blockage can be caused by everything from allergies or a sinus infections to a deviated septum or nasal polyps. But poor muscle tone in the throat and tongue can also lead the muscles to relax and collapse, blocking the passage, he says. That’s called sleep apnea—it’s marked by heavy snoring and pauses in breathing; and about 75 percent of snorers suffer from it, he says.
Should you worry? Sounding like a bear on occasion isn’t dangerous—just annoying for your spouse, says Maas. But if you’re waking the whole house up (or it’s happening every night), you’re straining your heart—which could lead to high blood pressure, heart attack, or stroke, he says. Plus, snoring tanks how much restorative sleep you’re actually snagging. Skip OTC sprays and pills—they don’t work, says Mass. Instead, try sleeping on your side, cutting out booze three hours before you sleep, and taking a hot shower before bed, he says. Nothing working? It’s best to see a sleep specialist to get to the root of the problem.
A Rumbling Stomach
What’s happening: Gurgling, rumbling, or growling is typically related to the passage of food, fluid, and air through the intestines, says David Greenwald, M.D., director of of clinical gastroenterology and endoscopy at The Mount Sinai Hospital. See, food passes through the digestive tract through repetitive squeezing of the muscles that line the intestine walls. It’s a process called peristalsis, he explains, and the noises are normal. Of course, an audible growl could also mean you’re starved: “Hunger seems to signal the intestines to ‘rev up’ and these increased contractions can lead to noises sometimes referred to as hunger pangs.”
Should you worry? Most of the time, no. For what it’s worth, a rumble in your gut can even strike up hours after eating or overnight—and that’s normal, says Greenwald. Think twice, though, if your stomach noises are accompanied by pain, vomiting, or fever, he says. Docs worry about issues like intestinal blockages, tumors, infections, and hernias—so you’d want to seek medical attention, he notes.