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J Surg Educ. 2014 Sep-Oct;71(5):768-73. doi: 10.1016/j.jsurg.2014.02.003. Epub 2014 Apr 24.

Usefulness of bowel sound auscultation: a prospective evaluation.

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Division of Colon and Rectal Surgery, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, California.
Division of Urologic Oncology, Princess Margaret Hospital, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Division of Colon and Rectal Surgery, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, California. Electronic address:



Although the auscultation of bowel sounds is considered an essential component of an adequate physical examination, its clinical value remains largely unstudied and subjective.


The aim of this study was to determine whether an accurate diagnosis of normal controls, mechanical small bowel obstruction (SBO), or postoperative ileus (POI) is possible based on bowel sound characteristics.


Prospectively collected recordings of bowel sounds from patients with normal gastrointestinal motility, SBO diagnosed by computed tomography and confirmed at surgery, and POI diagnosed by clinical symptoms and a computed tomography without a transition point. Study clinicians were instructed to categorize the patient recording as normal, obstructed, ileus, or not sure. Using an electronic stethoscope, bowel sounds of healthy volunteers (n = 177), patients with SBO (n = 19), and patients with POI (n = 15) were recorded. A total of 10 recordings randomly selected from each category were replayed through speakers, with 15 of the recordings duplicated to surgical and internal medicine clinicians (n = 41) blinded to the clinical scenario. The sensitivity, positive predictive value, and intra-rater variability were determined based on the clinician's ability to properly categorize the bowel sound recording when blinded to additional clinical information. Secondary outcomes were the clinician's perceived level of expertise in interpreting bowel sounds.


The overall sensitivity for normal, SBO, and POI recordings was 32%, 22%, and 22%, respectively. The positive predictive value of normal, SBO, and POI recordings was 23%, 28%, and 44%, respectively. Intra-rater reliability of duplicated recordings was 59%, 52%, and 53% for normal, SBO, and POI, respectively. No statistically significant differences were found between the surgical and internal medicine clinicians for sensitivity, positive predictive value, or intra-rater variability. Overall, 44% of clinicians reported that they rarely listened to bowel sounds, whereas 17% reported that they always listened.


Auscultation of bowel sounds is not a useful clinical practice when differentiating patients with normal versus pathologic bowel sounds. The listener frequently arrives at an incorrect diagnosis. If routine abdominal auscultation is to be continued, our findings emphasize the need for improvements in training and education as well as advancements in the understanding of the objective acoustical properties of bowel sounds.


Medical Knowledge; Patient Care; Practice-Based Learning and Improvement; auscultation; bowel sounds; ileus; small bowel obstruction

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