Doctors often use stethoscopes to listen to the stomach and other abdominal organs as a part of a routine physical examination or when diagnosing certain conditions. By doing so, they can gather vital information on various bodily functions, detect potential abnormalities, and formulate a more accurate diagnosis.
This article will delve into why doctors use a stethoscope on the stomach, explaining the scientific rationale behind this practice, the valuable insights it provides, and its importance in overall patient care.
What is a Stethoscope?
A stethoscope is a medical instrument used by healthcare professionals, most commonly doctors and nurses, to listen to the internal sounds of a patient’s body.
It was invented by French physician René Laennec in the early 19th century.
The device typically consists of a chest piece with a sensitive diaphragm, two tubes connected to earpieces, and a stem connecting the chest piece to the tubes.
It aids in the diagnosis of health conditions related to the heart, lungs, stomach, and other internal organs by amplifying sounds that these organs produce, such as heartbeats, breath sounds, and bowel sounds.
What is Abdominal Auscultation?
Abdominal auscultation is a medical process where a healthcare provider listens to the sounds within a patient’s abdomen using a stethoscope.
This technique is a fundamental part of a physical examination and is used to assess the function and health of the digestive system.
During abdominal auscultation, the healthcare provider will listen for the normal sounds of digestion, which are produced by the movement of food, fluids, and gas through the stomach and intestines.
These sounds are generally soft and gurgling and occur intermittently, about 5–30 times per minute. However, the provider is also listening for any abnormal sounds or changes in the normal sounds.
For instance, very loud and frequent sounds (hyperactive bowel sounds) could indicate a digestive disorder, while the absence of these sounds (hypoactive or absent bowel sounds) may suggest a blockage or other serious condition.
Other sounds, such as vascular sounds like bruits, can indicate an aneurysm or stenosis.
Note: Abdominal auscultation provides valuable, noninvasive insight into the functioning of the digestive system and can help diagnose a variety of gastrointestinal conditions. As with any medical procedure, it should be performed in the context of a complete clinical evaluation, considering the patient’s symptoms, history, and other diagnostic test results.
Reasons to Use a Stethoscope on the Stomach
Using a stethoscope on the stomach, a practice known as abdominal auscultation, can provide valuable insight into a patient’s digestive health.
Here are some of the reasons why a doctor might use a stethoscope on the stomach:
- Assess Bowel Activity: Normal bowel sounds indicate a healthy, functioning digestive system. These sounds are produced by the movement of the stomach and intestines as they push food through the digestive tract. On the other hand, hyperactive, hypoactive, or absent bowel sounds can indicate a range of conditions, from diarrhea or gastrointestinal bleeding to constipation or bowel obstruction.
- Detect Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm: The aorta is the main artery that supplies blood to the body. An aneurysm is a bulge or swelling in a part of the aorta that runs through the abdomen. If an abdominal aortic aneurysm is present, a healthcare provider may hear a whooshing sound, known as a bruit, with the stethoscope.
- Identify Abdominal Bruits: Apart from aneurysms, bruits can also signal other vascular conditions, such as stenosis or narrowing of an artery. The presence of an abdominal bruit can suggest renal artery stenosis or mesenteric ischemia, conditions that affect the blood vessels supplying the kidneys and intestines, respectively.
- Diagnose Digestive Disorders and Diseases: Listening to the stomach can help doctors diagnose a variety of gastrointestinal disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroenteritis, and ulcers.
- Evaluate Post-Operative Status: After abdominal surgery, auscultation of the abdomen is often performed to assess the return of bowel function. This is a vital step in the post-operative recovery process.
- Monitor Certain Treatments: In some cases, doctors may use a stethoscope to monitor the effectiveness of treatments for certain gastrointestinal conditions.
- Rule Out Conditions: Sometimes, the goal isn’t to identify a specific condition but to rule out potential problems. For instance, in a patient with unexplained pain or discomfort in the abdominal region, auscultation can be used to determine if the cause might be gastrointestinal in nature.
Note: A stethoscope is an invaluable tool in the medical field, providing non-invasive means to assess and monitor the health of the stomach and other abdominal organs.
Common Abdominal Sounds
In the process of abdominal auscultation, healthcare providers listen to various sounds produced by the movement of the gastrointestinal tract.
Here are some of the most common abdominal sounds and what they might indicate:
- Normal Bowel Sounds: These are the sounds of digestion and typically present as soft clicks or gurgles that occur irregularly, anywhere from 5 to 30 times per minute. They result from the movement of gas and fluid through the intestines.
- Hyperactive Bowel Sounds: These are loud, high-pitched, rushing sounds that occur more frequently than normal. They could indicate conditions such as gastroenteritis, early bowel obstruction, hunger, or diarrhea.
- Hypoactive or Absent Bowel Sounds: These are sounds that occur infrequently or not at all. Hypoactive sounds could suggest a slowing down of intestinal activity, possibly due to an infection, inflammation, or following surgery. Absent bowel sounds over a prolonged period can indicate a serious condition such as bowel obstruction or ischemia.
- Borborygmi: These are prolonged gurgles that sound like the stomach is growling. They’re often heard when the patient is hungry but can also indicate increased motility or movement in the intestines.
- Bruit: This is a whooshing sound that occurs with blood flow through a narrowed artery. In the abdomen, it could suggest a problem with the aorta, such as an aneurysm, or with other major abdominal arteries.
- Rub: This is a harsh or grating sound, similar to two rough surfaces rubbing together. It’s not typically heard in the abdomen, but when it is, it might indicate the presence of an inflammatory process or a tumor causing friction between organs or structures in the abdomen.
Remember: These interpretations are general, and the presence of these sounds can differ based on individual patient conditions. Therefore, any abnormal sound should be evaluated in the context of other symptoms, physical findings, and diagnostic tests to reach an accurate diagnosis.
Other Stethoscope Uses
While the stethoscope is commonly used for listening to the stomach, heart, and lungs, it also has several other uses in different medical contexts.
Here are some of the additional ways healthcare professionals might utilize a stethoscope:
- Heart Auscultation: This is perhaps the most known use of a stethoscope. By listening to the heart, a healthcare provider can assess the heart’s rate and rhythm, identify any murmurs, and detect sounds that may indicate heart valve problems or other cardiac conditions.
- Lung Auscultation: Listening to the lungs can help identify abnormal sounds such as wheezing (common in asthma), crackles (which might indicate pneumonia, heart failure, or other lung diseases), or decreased/absent breath sounds (which could suggest a collapsed lung or pleural effusion).
- Blood Pressure Measurement: A stethoscope is used in conjunction with a sphygmomanometer to measure blood pressure. The stethoscope is placed over the brachial artery of the arm to listen for the sound of blood starting to flow again as the pressure in the cuff is gradually released. This method, known as auscultatory blood pressure measurement, helps determine systolic and diastolic blood pressures.
- Assessing Arteries and Veins: The stethoscope can be used to listen to blood flow in the arteries and veins, usually to detect any abnormal sounds like bruits or murmurs that could indicate vascular disease.
- Checking the Fetus in Pregnancy: In late pregnancy, a special type of stethoscope called a fetoscope can be used to listen to the fetal heartbeat.
- Neurological Uses: In some cases, a stethoscope can be used to detect certain neurological issues, like a bruit in the neck that could indicate carotid artery stenosis, a significant risk factor for stroke.
Each of these uses helps healthcare providers diagnose and monitor a wide variety of health conditions, making the stethoscope an indispensable tool in medicine.
FAQs About Using a Stethoscope
Why Do Doctors Put a Stethoscope on the Stomach?
Doctors use a stethoscope on the stomach to assess the status of the digestive system. This process, known as abdominal auscultation, allows doctors to listen to bowel sounds and detect any abnormalities.
It can provide valuable insights into the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract.
What Stomach Issues Can a Stethoscope Detect?
A stethoscope can help detect a range of gastrointestinal issues. It can identify abnormal bowel sounds that may suggest conditions like gastroenteritis, irritable bowel syndrome, bowel obstruction, or even inflammation related to diseases like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
Additionally, it can also detect vascular sounds such as bruits, which may indicate an abdominal aortic aneurysm or other vascular conditions.
How Do You Listen to Your Stomach with a Stethoscope?
To listen to your stomach with a stethoscope, start by placing the diaphragm (the flat, round part) of the stethoscope on different areas of your abdomen.
Apply gentle pressure and listen carefully for any sounds.
Move the stethoscope systematically around the abdomen to ensure you cover all areas. Normal stomach sounds are usually soft and may sound like gurgles or clicks.
Do Gastroenterologists Use a Stethoscope?
Yes, gastroenterologists, like most physicians, use a stethoscope as part of their physical examination.
It aids them in assessing the health of the gastrointestinal tract and helps detect any abnormalities or changes in bowel sounds that may suggest digestive disorders or diseases.
What Organs Can You Hear with a Stethoscope?
With a stethoscope, you can listen to a variety of organs and systems in the body. This includes the heart, lungs, and abdomen (including the stomach, intestines, liver, and other organs).
In addition to these, healthcare professionals may also listen to blood flow in arteries and veins, especially in the neck and limbs. In pregnant women, a stethoscope can also be used to listen to the heartbeat of the fetus.
The use of a stethoscope on the stomach is a vital practice in healthcare that extends our understanding of a patient’s gastrointestinal health.
This noninvasive procedure allows doctors to assess bowel activity, diagnose digestive disorders, monitor the effectiveness of treatments, and even identify potentially life-threatening conditions such as an abdominal aortic aneurysm.
The sounds captured through the stethoscope serve as a language of the body, providing crucial insights into the functioning of internal organs.
As we’ve explored in this article, the stethoscope, far from being limited to the heart and lungs, proves its versatility and indispensability in medical practice by offering a window into the intricate workings of the human stomach and other abdominal organs.
John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.
- Roguin, Ariel. “Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laënnec (1781-1826): the man behind the stethoscope.” Clinical medicine & research vol. 4,3 (2006)
- Breum, Birger Michael et al. “Accuracy of abdominal auscultation for bowel obstruction.” World journal of gastroenterology vol. 21,34 (2015)
- Shaw PM, Loree J, Gibbons RC. Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm. [Updated 2023 Feb 24]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-.
- Ferguson CM. Inspection, Auscultation, Palpation, and Percussion of the Abdomen. In: Walker HK, Hall WD, Hurst JW, editors. Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations. 3rd edition. Boston: Butterworths; 1990. Chapter 93.
- Auscultation of Abdomen. www.meddean.luc.edu/lumen/meded/medicine/pulmonar/pd/pstep41.htm.