Dear Science, What's Up With Hiccups?

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Growing up, one of my favorite shows was Mr. Hiccup (you can blame my Eastern European childhood). The Swiss/Italian series followed the life of Mr. Hiccup, a middle-aged man with a pleasant job and a pleasant life, and one not-so-pleasant problem: chronic hiccups. Each episode focused on Mr. Hiccup attempting to get rid of his annoying little habit, but to no avail. Here's a clip of the show:

Looking back, I don't recall a single episode where Mr. Hiccup visited the doctor for his ailment. And Google or WebMD weren't around to scare the poor man into thinking he had a brain tumor. But perhaps something was up, because Mr. Hiccup isn't alone: Ultrasounds have shown that fetuses as young as eight weeks experience hiccups; newborns often do, too. And while most of us suffer from occasional hiccups — which can last up to an hour — in rare occurrences, they can be chronic, lasting days, weeks, or months. In fact, one man, Charles Osborne, holds the world record for the longest recorded case of the hiccups — roughly 68 years!

So what's up with this involuntary muscle reaction? Well, we know its definition: a hiccup is a spasmodic contraction of the muscle at the base of the diaphragm, followed by rapid closure of the vocal cords. As a result, a synchronized "hic" sound occurs. We also have an idea what may trigger it: spicy foods, hot liquids, or underlying health conditions that irritate the nerves which control the diaphragm, such as: pregnancy, bladder irritation, pancreatitis, and in extreme cases — liver cancer, hepatitis, or brain tumors.

What we don't know is how to cure them. Old wives' tales on possible remedies have been around for some time, like drinking water while bending over, holding your breath (more on this later), having someone scare you, and so on, but not much has been done in way of research. After all, researchers can't exactly start a trial by instructing participants to hiccup on demand (although that would be kind of funny).

Some case studies from the 90s have shown doctors performing digital rectum massages to successfully cure chronic hiccups. And most recently in 2000, doctors reported a case of a man who cured his chronic hiccups after having an orgasm during sex. Experts say in both cases, the vagus nerve, which helps control the function of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract, was stimulated. Generally, drug therapy with chlorpromazine is prescribed.

The traditional belief that holding one's breath could cure the hiccups does hold some scientific truth, experts say. In cases of chronic hiccups, researchers observed that by holding the breath, patients could build up carbon dioxide in the body, which decreased the frequency of the hiccups.

Still, scientists haven't gotten to the root of the problem. One hypothesis states that hiccups could be leftovers from a period in evolution in tadpoles which gasp for gill ventilation. You can read more on the hypothesis here.

Given all that, if you've had the hiccups for more than two days, you should consult with a doctor — and you could become a guinea pig for new treatments!