Medical Examiner

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.

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.

If I eat (usually something carb-y, like pancakes) without taking a drink of some liquid, I feel like all the food gets caught in my chest. And then when I do drink, it actually kid of painful for a few sips, but then I can feel the food move and the passageway clear.

“The upper esophagus is made up of skeletal muscle, like the muscles in your arms and legs, but the bottom is made up smooth muscles, which you can’t voluntarily control,” says Kuemmerle. “In this transition zone, some people experience discoordination in the peristaltic wave that moves food along.”

The sensation of dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, is particularly common with dry foods. It helps to take smaller bites, chew thoroughly, and drink fluids while eating. If you experience this feeling regularly, see a doctor. It could be a symptom of muscular problems or even a growth in the esophagus.

Once in a while when I eat something sugary I get a really sharp pain under/around my ears. like really sharp. It sucks. I did some reading on it, I think it has something to do with the salivary glands?

The salivary glands do, indeed, cause this sensation. “When someone starts eating,” says Chang, “large salivary glands under the jawline spring into action to prepare for eating and swallowing. The production can be really vigorous, causing discomfort.”

The experience usually isn’t limited to sugary foods. In some people, the sensation comes even before the first bite, as the brain anticipates food and causes the mouth to water. It also isn’t limited to the jawline, either. The parotid gland, a large gland that extends into the cheek area, can also cause this feeling.

Sometimes my heart will beat against my chest to the point where I have to cough a few times to get it back under control. It feels like it’s an uneven rhythm, but it doesn’t last longer than a few seconds.

“Once in a while, you get a heartbeat that goes very close to its neighbor—a premature beat,” explains O’Gara. “After that, there is a pause before the next beat. It feels like a dropped beat, or like you’re going down in an elevator.”

Coughing seems an odd remedy for a stuttering heart, but O’Gara says it works for some people. Coughing changes certain nerve impulses and can set off a different cadence in the heartbeat. The trick works best in young people.

Premature heartbeats shouldn’t worry you too much if you’re otherwise healthy. They may be caused by sleep deprivation, caffeine, cold medications, or a mini-withdrawal from a night of heavy drinking. If it happens repeatedly and without explanation, however, you should see a doctor.

When I yawn, I get tears in both my eyes. Everyone asks me if i’m crying, and I have to explain every time I yawn.

“We tear all day long,” says Sumers, who explains that yawns probably do not cause extra tears. Instead, they cause your eyes to overflow, because yawning closes the puncta, which help drain tears out of the eyes. When your eyelids clamp down, the tears are forced out of the eyes—that’s when you suddenly become aware of your tears.

Tonsil stones or “Tonsillolith”. They’re small white/yellowish blob that randomly comes out of my mouth sometimes… And they smell extremely bad.

This commenter has diagnosed his own problem. “Tonsil stones are like acne of the tonsils,” says Chang. “They look like yellow rice kernels.”

We asked about this one to help explain the odor, which several Redditors complained about. Although they look like simple blobs, tonsil stones are complex structures, with folds, crannies, and compartments. Each of these little nooks features a different chemical environment, enabling a single tonsil stone to host an incredible density of both aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, which stink terribly. Several studies have suggested that tonsil stones, or the underlying condition that causes tonsil stones, are responsible for a large proportion of chronic halitosis cases.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy treatment. The only way to permanently clear yourself of tonsil stones is to remove the tonsils that produce them.

Feeling my heart beat in all different parts of my body without even touching to feel for it, however when I actually try to look for my heart beat I can’t find it at all…

The first thing to note is that this Redditor has confused heartbeat, the rhythmic contraction of the heart, with pulse, the rhythmic flow of blood through the blood vessels. When he or she complains of feeling a heartbeat all over the body, it is presumably a reference to pulse.

“Sometimes people mistake a spontaneous muscle twitch for a pulse,” says O’Gara. “The pulse is not easily perceived in parts of the body where major blood vessels aren’t close to the surface, like the abdomen or thigh.”

When O’Gara sees a patient who claims to feel a pulse in strange places, he asks him or her to drum out the rhythm on a table, which often demonstrates that the rhythm is irregular or otherwise not consistent with a pulse.

As for the Redditor’s inability to feel a heartbeat in his or her chest, O’Gara says this is very common. Breast tissue can make it very difficult to feel a heartbeat with your hand, as can developed pectoral muscles. Medical students with thin chests are prized in cardiology classes, because it’s easy to feel, or even see, their hearts beating.

I constantly have a weird static in my vision… it’s mostly visible in the dark, but in light I can still see it (or if not directly it, perceive some kind of motion as what I assume to be an effect of it). I’ve asked other people and they have no idea. It’s been there my whole life.

Although there is no precise physiological explanation for this comment, it is a common experience and nothing to worry about.

“We can get many visual phenomena, like seeing the blood vessels in our own eyes, floaters, or dark spots,” says Sumers. “If you have had it your whole life, it’s not a sign of disease.”

Sumers explains that many people complain of television snow or static in their vision. It tends to be associated with anxiety or neuroses, but it can also happen in people without these difficulties. If visual irregularities appear suddenly, then you should see an ophthalmologist. Floaters can indicate retinal bleeding, for example, and flashing lights could be a sign of retinal detachment.