Old Wives Tales Debunked: Curing hiccups

Is drinking copious amounts of water really enough? Alison Lee explores common cures for hiccups?

Type ‘cures for hiccups’ into Google and you’re presented with over half a million results, at least some of which aren’t pornography. But if there’s so much information out there, then why does no one seem to know what the hell hiccups are, why we get them and most importantly, how to make them go away?

Hiccups are known to doctors as Synchronous Diaphragmatic Flutters (SDFs): sporadic contractions of the diaphragm occurring several times a minute, causing air to rush into the lungs through the epiglottis, hence the embarrassing ‘hic’ noise.

Some researchers postulate that the hiccup reflex is an evolutionary leftover from when our ancestors were amphibians splashing around in primordial ooze. Amphibians breathe in a very similar gulping manner to humans with the hiccups, and scientists have discovered that the motor pathways controlling human hiccupping are identical to the pathways controlling respiration in amphibians. This pathway forms very early in human foetal development – even earlier than the respiratory reflex we need to breathe. Indeed, premature infants spend two and a half per cent of their time hiccupping.

What sparks off an episode of hiccups? We’ve all had them for a few embarrassing minutes, usually in inappropriate places like lecture theatres or the cinema, after drinking fizzy drinks too fast or eating dry bread. But some unfortunate people find themselves with long-term hiccups after experiencing damage to nerves that control the diaphragm.

Luckily, intractable hiccups can be treated with drugs such as haloperidol or metaclopramide. Only problem is, these drugs work because they’re sedatives. Thus, short-term treatment is the only viable option, as being permanently sedated tends to get in the way of leading a normal life. Another cure involves surgically implanting an electrical nerve stimulator into the chest of patients with intractable hiccups, which sends electrical impulses along the relevant nerves to the brain, suppressing the hiccups.

There are of course more informal cures: some examples include screaming as loud as you can for as long as you can, drinking a pint of water through a paper towel, or having someone punch you in the stomach. These ideas sound a bit far fetched to me, but if you ended up like Charles Osbourne, who hiccupped for 68 years in a row, you’d probably try anything.