What It Means If Bowel Sounds Are Absent

When bowel sounds are absent, it can be a sign of a problem. Bowel sounds are the noises made when food, fluid, and gases move around in the intestines. Whether they are quiet enough to be heard only with a stethoscope or loud enough that people notice, these noises are an important sign of healthy intestines.

This article will explain why bowel sounds are important and what may cause them to be absent.

Hungry man looking for food in the refrigerator
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Causes of Absent Bowel Sounds

Bowel sounds are the by-product of food passing through the digestive system. When these sounds are absent or reduced (known as "hypoactive" bowel sounds), it may mean the intestines are not working properly. In some cases, waste material can build up in the body and cause serious problems.

Here are some possible causes of absent bowel sounds:

Abdominal surgery: Bowel sounds commonly slow down or stop for a certain amount of time after surgery in the abdominal area. How long this lasts varies from person to person. After surgery, patients are usually told not to eat until bowel sounds resume and they can pass gas (which is another sign of normal bowel function).

General anesthesia: When general anesthesia is used during surgeries (even those not involving the digestive tract), bowel sounds may decrease for a time.

Bowel blockage: A blockage is when something stops waste material from moving through the intestines. This can happen, for instance, when scar tissue builds up in the intestine from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and Crohn's disease. It could also be the result of swallowing a foreign body (a non-food item).

Ischemic bowel disease: This is a group of conditions that occur when the blood supply gets blocked to the intestine. Without adequate blood, the bowel may stop working properly.

Pain medications: Certain pain medications, especially those that contain narcotics (such as opioids) tend to slow down the digestive process. Sometimes this can lead to constipation.

Toxic megacolon: This is a condition associated with ulcerative colitis that causes pain and a lack of bowel sounds. It is an emergency and needs to be treated immediately.

Diagnosing the Reason for Absent Bowel Sounds

If the lack of bowel sounds can't be easily attributed to recent surgery, anesthesia or a known disease such as Crohn's disease, a healthcare provider may want to perform some tests. These can include blood tests and/or a CT scan of the abdomen.

In some cases, an endoscopy might be performed to look inside the digestive tract. This might include a colonoscopy or an upper endoscopy. The results of these tests can provide more information about what might be causing a problem in the digestive tract and why there might be an absence of bowel sounds.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you notice that your body isn't making its normal bowel sounds during digestion over time, you may want to contact a healthcare professional. If your lack of bowel sounds is accompanied any of the following symptoms, you should seek emergency attention:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Blood in the stool
  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • Severe abdominal pain


It is normal and healthy for the intestines to make sounds during digestion. Absent bowel sounds can be a normal side effect of abdominal surgery or use of certain pain medications. If the lack of bowel sounds is accompanied by other symptoms such as vomiting or severe abdominal pain, this should be treated as an emergency.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Amber J. Tresca
Amber J. Tresca is a freelance writer and speaker who covers digestive conditions, including IBD. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 16.