Gas Attack: What To Do When Your Stomach’s In Knots

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
If you’re a delicate flower who doesn’t like to talk about farting or burping, I’m with you. Growing up, if I even broached the topic of belching, my mother would raise one eyebrow and say in a grave tone: “The bathroom is the place for that, young lady.” This phrase was instilled in me, and I crinkle my nose at anything potty-related. I don’t even like the name Bart, because it’s too close to fart. 
But sometimes, when it comes to your health, you have to be willing to broach topics you’re not so comfortable with. For the sake of journalism, I bucked up and asked bloating expert Tamara Duker Freuman — MS, RD, and the author of The Bloated Belly Whisperer — questions about tooting, burping, and pooping in order to relieve trapped gas. If you suffer from this problem — even if you’re uncomfortable with the bodily function jargon — you can learn from reading up on it and discussing it with your doctor.
With that preface out of the way, let’s get down to business — the business of your gastrointestinal tract. We're talking the kind of problem that makes you feel like Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’s Violet Beauregarde (if you’re not up on your movie trivia, she’s the girl who turned into a giant blueberry). Let’s talk about giant pockets of gas.

What causes trapped gas? 

Duker Freuman explains that there are myriad reasons it can feel like there’s a gas bubble inside you that just won’t burst. “Some of my patients have a problem with gas clearance in their GI tract,” she explains. She sees patients who can’t belch because of a physiological dysfunction involving the upper sphincter in their esophagus. She also treats people who can’t clear gas from their intestines because they have difficulty farting. “This might mean that they have a high stool burden,” she says. “Basically, they’re full of poop.” That makes it more difficult to follow the famed Shrek advice: “Better out than in.” 
Another common reason people feel the dolorous agony of gas that just won’t pass is that they’re too embarrassed to just let it rip. People who work in offices with open floor plans, for example, may be holding in their farts, creating an internal problem. 
Yet another intriguing trapped gas trigger is flying. “Even healthy, normal, well-functioning bodies can experience this on planes,” Duker Freuman says. “They’re physically very cramped, and this constricts the body. You’re not moving or walking, so gas is sitting there. And, when you’re flying, your gas expands, taking up more space.” So, if you have discomfort during travel or in the 24 hours after you land, this could be the culprit.
Ultimately, this phenomenon can happen to anyone. “Look, the body is complex,” Duker Freuman says. “People who are basically healthy can experience this temporary discomfort for a variety of reasons.” 

Trapped gas symptoms 

They include feeling an internal tightness, a cramping sensation, and even sharp pain. Trapped gas can also make you feel bloated. 

How do I get rid of trapped gas? 

“If you have a pain inside that you recognize as trapped intestinal gas,” Duker Freuman says, "you might think to yourself: If I could burp, I would feel better. Often, that's your understanding of your predicament.”
And in this case, you’re on the right track. She says that depending on where you feel the gas, either belching or farting will be the solution. The rule of thumb is that if it’s in the stomach above the belly button, you probably need to belch, and if it’s in the intestines, it’s a job for the toots.

Can gas get trapped in your back? 

No. Although it might feel like it’s building up there, It can only get trapped within the GI tract. However, Duker Freuman says the sensation can often “radiate to the back." The body’s pain-sensing system isn’t precise, which is why it’s common to hear about people’s arm or shoulder hurting when they’re having a heart attack.
If it feels like the gas bubble is in your back, it likely means the gas is in your intestines and you need to fart it out, Duker Freuman says.

What about your chest?

Thinking there’s a gas pocket in your chest is similar to feeling like it’s in your back in most ways. However, Duker Freuman notes that it likely means the problem is in your stomach and can be solved with a burp or two.

Is trapped gas the same as being bloated?  

Not necessarily. Duker Freuman explains that bloating is a pressure that’s just shy of pain, and it can also present as a visible distention of the stomach. “In the Venn diagram of trapped gas and bloating, there’s quite a bit that overlaps, but not everyone who has trapped gas is going to experience bloating.” And vice versa. 

Should I take gas relief medicine? 

If this is a chronic issue, you should talk to your doctor. But if this is a once-in-a-blue-moon thing, go for it — as long as you know your body reacts well to Simethicone, which is the active ingredient in most of these medications. If you’re going on a long flight or you’re eating something that you know will make you gassy, beans for example, you can try Gas-X or a similar medication. Duker Freuman says this will relieve pressure by taking larger gas bubbles and then breaking them down into tinier ones. 

How to make yourself fart and burp

There are may ways. Some traditional, some more out-of-the-box. And some are actually pleasant. 

Drink seltzer

Of all of Duker Freuman’s recommendations, the one that appealed the most to me was drinking something carbonated. “It seems counter intuitive, like: Why would I add more gas?” she notes. But the more bubbles of carbon dioxide you add to the stomach, the more likely they are to come back up, she explains. 
I was thrilled to hear this advice, because it gives me a health reason to keep buying  La Croix and Waterloo Sparkling Water. If you don’t feel like paying 45 cents per can, you can just do any old bottle the bubbly stuff (no, we don’t mean champagne, although it technically can make you burp).
Although no one wants to be in class behind the girl who’s farting in crow pose, it's not her fault. It's yoga's. Duker Freuman explains that all the twisting and turning that takes place during your practice can dislodge stubborn pockets of gas inside of you. So, next time your stomach starts to hurt, dip down into an eagle pose and see what happens.
“And maybe do yoga at home,” Duker Freuman jokes. 

Eat a meal 

“The act of eating stimulates motility, and if you’ve got trapped gas sitting there, it can help get things moving,” she says. 

Swallow some air 

You can chew gum or just try swallowing air to make yourself belch. 

Give a crap 

Literally. A bowel movement can help to relieve gas that’s inside of the intestines. 

What should you eat when you have gas

Although there are some foods that are known to make you more gassy, such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, pears, apples, and legumes, there’s not one silver bullet. “There’s nothing magic about yogurt or any specific food that will automatically release trapped gas,” Duker Freuman says. Ultimately, just eating in general will get your system going and hopefully help you expel what’s trapped inside you, piercing those gas bubbles like taking a knife to a balloon. 

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