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Hiccups – the Low-down

Niamh Crosbie explores some weird and wonderful facts about the hiccups.

Hold your breath. Put your head upside-down and drink from a glass of water. Have a trusted friend “spontaneously and unexpectedly” scare the living bejaysus out of you. Count backwards from fifty as Gaeilge. Stop me if any of these tips sound familiar.

We’re all well acquainted with our old friend, prescription the hiccup; some of us more than others. And let’s face it; nobody really likes them, do they? Nobody wants to “hupp!” in the sales assistant’s face when she kindly asks you if you need any help. Nobody wants to be the one drawing attention in their morning lecture. Bouts of hiccups can even be prolonged, painful, and more often than not, very irritating and difficult to get rid of.

So what are the hiccups? Medically known as singultus, or diaphragmic spasm. Known in ye-olde English as “yox”. In short, they would be sudden, frequent contractions of the diaphragm, caused by the interruption of a certain nerve. In chronic cases, the underlying cause occasionally requires medical attention. However, common triggers include digestive disturbance (due to eating too quickly, or consuming certain food or drink such as carbonated soft drinks and spicy food), excess laughing or coughing, or extreme emotion such as anxiety or over-excitement. In some countries’ folklore, it is said that hiccups begin when somebody is talking about or thinking about you.

One method of getting rid of hiccups includes overwhelming the nerve with another sensation. This is done by irritating the pharynx, such as by swallowing dry bread or a tablespoon of sugar. Methods which take this form date back as far as Plato, who in his philosophical writing suggests sneezing as a means of getting rid of hiccups. Another way to knock hiccups out of the water is to increase carbon dioxide flow in the blood, usually by interrupting a person’s breathing. This is where the surprised gasp of fright comes into play. Breathing repeatedly into a paper bag is also effective, as you begin to inhale more and more carbon dioxide with each breath.

In spite of all this, the exact causes of hiccups, and the most effective treatments, remain somewhat unknown. This was bad news for Charles Osbourne of Iowa, who hiccupped for 68 years, and was entered into the Guinness World Records as the man who had suffered the longest case of the hiccups. They persisted until he was 97 years old, despite efforts to cure him with surgical procedures and hormone therapy. Cases like these, which last years, are known as intractable hiccups, and are very uncommon. However, Osbourne married twice and raised eight children.

If you’re still struggling to find a surefire cure the next time you have the hiccups, the Italian cartoon Mr. Hiccup might offer some useful tips (none of which seem to work for the unfortunate protagonist, however!).

Fact: In 1899, with the first uses of ultrasound, it was discovered that foetuses can also get the hiccups. Hiccupping strengthens the baby’s diaphragm and prepares it for breathing in the real world.

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