July 25, 2016
The lecture hall is silent, save for the whisper of pencils scribbling across paper. Each student is deep in concentration, trying to remember the finer points of Plato’s “Symposium.” Then it happens: hic.
Talk about embarrassing. Whether it’s a final exam, a first date, or a job interview, hiccups always seem to happen at the most inconvenient moments. Even worse, they often go on and on.
We’ve all had them—but why? As common as they are, there’s a lot scientists don’t yet know about hiccups. Here’s what we do know, rounded up in eight surprising facts.
The term comes from the Latin word singult, which translates to “catching one’s breath while sobbing”—a pretty accurate description of the sound you make when you have them.
It all starts with the diaphragm—the curved muscle in your abdomen that expands and contracts when you breathe. Hiccups happen when the diaphragm quickly tightens in response to air getting trapped in your throat, and the vocal cords contract and produce a squeak.
Just because we know how hiccups work doesn’t mean we know why they happen. “There are probably many causes of hiccups and that’s probably why there’s no remedy that works every time,” says Rey Ximenes, a physician and acupuncturist and former president of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. “Certainly, we know there’s diaphragmatic irritation—that’s the hallmark of hiccups. What’s causing that or what mediates it, that’s another story.”
According to Tyler Cymet, the head of clinical medical education at the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, everyone has their own hiccup pattern. If your hiccups usually last 10 minutes, they’re likely going to last 10 minutes every time.
Most of the time, hiccups will go away within a few minutes when the body resets to a normal breathing rhythm. Sometimes, though, they can linger an uncomfortably long time—episodes that last longer than two days are known as persistent hiccups, and ones that last longer than one month are known as intractable hiccups. One 60-year-old man had the hiccups for more than a year.
Qi, or the life force within every person and the world around us, is central to Traditional Chinese Medicine. Practitioners believe that the hiccups happen when “rebellious qi” starts “backing up and spurting out,” Ximenes says.
Premature infants spend as much as 2 percent of their time hiccuping—and that might be for a good reason. Some scientists think hiccups stimulate the respiratory muscles we need to breathe, helping babies develop more quickly in the womb. The theory goes that once we’re born, we still have the impulse—just no biological need for it anymore.
So what can you do to stop an attack? Not much, Cymet says. He spent five years studying a wide variety of remedies and treatments, but nothing consistently stopped the hiccups. “People feel they have to do something. They don’t want to sit there and just wait,” though that’s the only thing that really works. If you’re desperate, he recommends counting your breaths to take your focus off the discomfort.
Ximenes doesn’t mind getting a little more experimental. He says acupuncture can help, and has had good luck with “some of the old stupid remedies” like swallowing a tablespoon of sugar—though he admits he’s “seen all of them fail.”
So, frantically googling cures is fruitless. As Ximenes says, the only sure thing is “the good old tincture of time—waiting for the diaphragm to get tired.”
Illustration by Foley Wu
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