Doctors Explain Why Your Body Does Those Strange Things

Health and medicine explained.
July 18 2014 8:38 AM

Why Does Your Body Do These Strange Things?

Doctors explain Reddit’s list of bizarre and secret bodily behaviors.

Weird Body Things.

Illustration by Ron and Joe/Shutterstock

Your body is weird. Admit it: You make strange sounds, feel misplaced shooting pains, or have secretions coming from places that shouldn’t be secreting. I’ll tell you one of mine so you don’t feel like you’re alone in being a freak: After prolonged exercise, my left ear pops and stays that way for around 30 minutes. I have no idea why this happens, but I can temporarily relieve it by touching my chin to my right collarbone.

Earlier this month, someone created a thread on the discussion site Reddit entitled, “What's a Strange Thing Your Body Does That You Assume Happens to Everyone but You've Never Bothered to Ask?” Readers commiserated over their inexplicable or unspeakable peculiarities. We need this safe space. You can’t tell your friends—they may mock you. And in the era of risk pools and managed care, you certainly can’t waste your doctor’s time over a clicking sound or some extra saliva.

The Reddit body issues range from the ordinary (“When I yawn, I get tears in both my eyes”) to the worrying (“I forget to breathe sometimes”). Many of the commenters found they were not alone.

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Heartened by the bonds that can form over odd and occasionally disgusting bodily behaviors, Slate has taken the Reddit thread to the next level. We presented the most popular issues to physicians and asked for explanations. (The Redditors are quoted below verbatim, with original spelling and punctuation intact.) Read on and you may learn something about this weird, amazing shell into which you were born.

Occasionally my hearing will ‘go out’ and everything will go dull.. and then a high pitched frequency screeches for a few minutes. No one else hears it and everything else seems really hushed while it's happening. Maybe it's the aliens.

“Only a small artery supplies blood to the cochlea,” the business end of the inner ear, says otolaryngologist Christopher Chang of Fauquier ENT Consultants. “When blood flow slows or is interrupted, hearing diminishes.”

The ringing is a consequence of the fleeting hearing loss. Chang compares this to phantom limb syndrome, in which people perceive pain or itchiness in an amputated part of the body. “Whenever there is a loss of sensory input from the body to the brain, the brain sometimes reacts with phantom sensations,” he says. Ringing is the brain’s way of filling in the blanks when the ear stops sending signals.

Doctors aren’t sure what depresses blood flow to the cochlea. It could be spasms in the blood vessel, debris, dehydration, or other factors. In the vast majority of people, hearing returns to normal in a matter of minutes. If it lasts more than a few hours, you should see a doctor. You may be experiencing sudden sensorineural hearing loss, a serious condition that can be permanent.

Whenever I'm about to throw up my mouth fills with metallic tasting saliva. Like my saliva glands just go into overdrive. I can always tell a good minute before I'm about to throw up because of this. The only person I know that also has this happen is my brother. I've mentioned it to so many of my friends and none of them know what I'm talking about.

“That’s water brash,” says Jay Kuemmerle, professor and chair in the division of gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition at the Medical College of Virginia. “When things are getting ready to come back up into the esophagus, there is a reflex that causes you to salivate heavily.”

The characteristic taste of prevomit saliva has to do with alkalinity. The contents of the stomach are highly acidic, and the body’s response is to produce basic saliva to neutralize the vomit. (Saliva can sometimes have a similar flavor while you’re eating, but the food covers the metallic tinge.)

If you only experience this off-flavor saliva before vomiting, there’s no reason for concern. If, however, you find yourself with a mouthful of metallic saliva on a regular basis, see a doctor. It could be a sign of silent reflux—another condition in which the acidic contents of the stomach surge into the esophagus. Untreated silent reflux can damage the esophageal lining and cause dental abrasions or even earaches.

Sometimes I can hear my blood pumping in my ears. When I was a little kid I thought it was my “train of thought.”

“People very commonly report that they can either hear or feel their heartbeat in their ears,” says Patrick O'Gara, president of the American College of Cardiology and director of clinical cardiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital. “Some say it becomes more noticeable at night when lying on their side.”

O’Gara explains that, when you lie down, the arteries around your ear can be pushed against the skull bones. Since sound is more effectively transmitted through bone than air, it can create the sensation of hearing your pulse. People who experience this sensation while standing up may have arteries more tightly pressed to their skulls, or they might simply be more attuned to the sound.

That little pink thing in the corner of your eyes? My left one squeaks when I rub my eye or even remotely touch it.

This is an anatomical mix-up. “The little pink thing is not squeaking,” says Anne Sumers, a clinical ophthalmologist and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. “The caruncle is totally silent.”

In fact, this squeaking is the sound of air escaping through the puncta—tiny tubes that connect your eyes to the lacrimal sac, where tears come from. Air can get into this sac through the naso-lacrimal duct that connects the sac to the nose. (The connection between eyes and nose is also the reason your nose runs when you cry.)

“It’s just a physiological trick that some people can do,” says Sumers, “kind of like bagpipes.”

I forget to breathe sometimes, I start to breathe really shallow and then just stop for a little bit then I realize, oh shit, I'm not breathing.

There are two possibilities here. “In obese patients,” says Humam Farah, who specializes in pulmonary disease and sleep medicine at the Hannibal Clinic in Missouri, “the abdomen can push the diaphragm into the chest, decreasing the capacity of the lungs. In addition, obese people can develop resistance to leptin, which helps stimulate the brain to breathe.”

The other explanation is a form of apnea. “When I wake up in the morning, I don’t think to myself, ‘I’m going to eat breakfast, see some patients, and I’m going to breathe today,’ ” says Farah. “People with central apnea are more aware of their breathing, and they can sometimes stop.”

The condition has been recognized for some time. It was probably the inspiration for a European myth known as “Ondine’s curse,” in which a jilted nymph sentences her human lover to have to remember automatic bodily functions, including breathing. Today, a particular form of respiratory sleep disorder carries the name of the nymph.

There are many potential causes for this form of apnea: a genetic mutation, painkillers, or a problem with the body’s pH balance. When you’re awake, the problem is not particularly dangerous. The carbon dioxide concentration in your blood will eventually rise to the point where your brain can no longer ignore the need to breathe. If it happens while sleeping, however, it’s a serious medical issue. People who experience apnea during the night have increased rates of arrhythmias, heart failure, and problems managing insulin. If you experience this condition and you are obese, take medications, have a family history of breathing problems, or suffer from heart or neurological conditions, you should see a doctor.

I can make a loud rumbling sound in my ears at will without moving any muscle in my face. I have no idea what this is called but it kind of sounds like when you put your ear to a seashell at the beach.

“Some people can contract two muscles that attach to the middle ear bones—the tensor tympani and the stapedius,” says Chang. “That movement pulls the bones and creates this sensation.”

If you can’t voluntarily contract those muscles but desperately want to hear the seashell sound, you may be able to create the same experience by clenching your teeth together firmly.

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