Hiccups - A social gaffe, or something worse? - (5/10/2022)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

The pharmacy was bustling with people. This was the store's big pre-summer sale, and the joint was jumping with shoppers, patients, and browsers. And yet, the pharmacist could hear the throaty sharpness of someone with hiccups somewhere in the store, accompanied by hysterical laughing. "Hic-hic-hic!" Then, the gaggle of girly giggles grew louder. "Hold your breath, Cindy," one girl urged. "Stand on your head," said another. More laughing and then a rush of the teen girls out the store's door. "I'm so - *hic* - embarrassed!" said Cindy, the presumptive "hiccupper." The pharmacist was certain that Cindy's catastrophic problem would be short-lived, and the gang would go on to chuckle about something else. After all, everyone has had hiccups, from inside the uterus to the death bed. They are nothing to write home about. Unless they happen in church – then they are hilarious! 

Hiccups are involuntary spasms of the diaphragm — the muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen and that works the lungs. Each spasm is followed by the sudden closing of your vocal cords, which produces the characteristic "hic" sound. The technical name is a synchronous diaphragmatic flutter (SDF) or singultus. Singultus comes from the ancient Latin phrase meaning "the act of catching one's breath while sobbing." There must be a great long-lost story behind that phrase since few of us are reduced to tears while mid-hiccup. Unless they happen to you in church. Then the otherwise pious faithful will laugh like Hell at you. 

What we know about hiccups throughout history would fill one side of an index card. For example, around the 11th century, early Anglo-Saxons believed hiccups were caused by elves. What ale-drinker started that rumor? Fast forward to 1921. Back then, Charles Osborn, a farmer from Iowa, began his 68-year bout of hiccups caused – not by errant elves – but after picking up and collapsing under a 350-pound hog destined for the bacon aisle at the A&P. Evidently, the fall jostled his brain. At 40 hiccups per minute and despite having 8 children (no apparent connection was ever determined), Mr. Osborn racked up 430 million hiccups by age 96 – an unwelcome world record. He died the following year, spawning a super-brief conspiracy theory that hiccups prolong life. 

Because hiccups normally occur randomly and for a brief amount of time, researchers find it frustrating to study them. Hence, many so-called cures are not backed up by a heapin’ helpin’ of scientific support. You will never find an aisle in a pharmacy dedicated solely to hiccups as you would, say, laxatives or runny noses. However, folk remedies abound. Many find that sucking a lemon can stop them. The rationale is that the tartness of the fruit can distract the brain away from the hiccups, thereby stopping them. Um, OK. Then, there is the notion that sipping water from the opposite side of a glass will stop hiccups. Maybe so. But you will dumbly spill water on your pants, and people will think you peed yourself. Now, that’s a distraction!

The causes of hiccups are countless. Unscientific reasons include that someone is badmouthing you. Or they occur because your heart skips a beat. False! But while males tend to have more hiccup spells than females, women take note. Says the American Heart Association, sudden severe hiccups in women, along with slurred speech and numbness, could signal a stroke. The hiccups can fool someone into believing it is just throat spasms – but get help immediately just in case. 

Overall, hiccups that last 2 days or more are a reason to see a doctor. They could be a symptom of anything from a brain tumor to a respiratory disease. Otherwise, hold your breath, calm down, and pray they don't happen in church. God forbid!

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press.

The content contained in this article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Reliance on any information provided in this article is solely at your own risk.


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