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The mystery of hiccups

Hiccups are not classified as a medical concern until you have had them for 48 hours. At this stage, they start talking about medicine to treat the hiccups. But anyone who has had hiccups knows that they can range from a minor inconvenience to a painful occurrence even before they have gone on for 48 hours.

There are actually very few medical research papers on treating mild hiccups – anything less than 48 hours – but there are many folk remedies. So what are hiccups and what is the basis for the folk remedies?

There are several things that scientists believe cause your regular, everyday hiccups: overeating, eating too fast, eating spicy food, drinking carbonated drinks, aerophagia (swallowing air), and sudden changes in the temperature of your food. I notice that nowhere in there is my most common cause, eating bread products – sigh.

A hiccup happens when the muscles that control the volume of your chest cavity (diaphragm and intercostal muscles) go through a spasmodic jerky contraction. Then the larynx closes which causes air to rush into the lungs. The air triggers the vocal cords which creates the “hic” sound.

Most of the folk remedies for hiccups apparently focus on stimulating the vagus nerve. The vagus nerves are a pair of cranial nerves that connect to the heart, lungs, upper digestive tract, and other organs in the chest and abdomen. Unfortunately, these remedies don’t seem to be effective for chronic hiccups.

  • Plug both ears and then drink a liquid though a straw.
  • Drinking ice water, swallowing crushed ice, or eating ice cream (yes please!)
  • Induce vomiting (no thanks!)
  • Sticking your tongue out, or pulling on your tongue with your fingers

All of these actions trigger branches of the vagus nerve, which seems to reset the system and stop the hiccups. It leads to the question though of why they don’t work in every case, and why they don’t seem to work at all for chronic cases.

It always amazes me to think about all the things we don’t know about the human body. If we ever make it to the world of Star Trek will we still have to deal with hiccups?

Chang, F.Y. & Lu, C. L. (2012). Hiccup: Mystery, nature, and treatment. Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility, 18, 123-130. DOI: 10.5056/jnm.2012.18.2.123

Petroianu, G. (2015). Treatment of hiccup by vagal maneuvers. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 24(2), 123-136. DOI: 10.1080/0964704X.2014.897133

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About Peyto

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities. Peyto is a reference to Bill Peyto who was an outfitter, trapper, and eventually a park warden in Banff National Park. Peyto Lake and Peyto Glacier are both named after him. He is also a distant relative of mine.

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