What's the ultimate hiccup cure?

Monday, August 7, 2006
Hiccups. We've all had them, but how do you get rid of them?

Is it by giving someone a big fright? Drinking a glass of water upside down? Screaming as loudly as you can? Or by holding your breath? You get the idea. But do these cures really work?

To find out, we're consulting Dr Robert Di Nicolantonio. Yes, there's an expert for everything these days, and Robert's the man for hiccups. He believes it all starts in the brain.

"It fires an impulse, which goes to a nerve, which tells the muscles in the diaphragm and chest to contract and expand the thorax. But just as we expand the thorax, about twenty thousandths of a second later, the voice box closes under the action of a different nerve ... and we hiccup."

John Francis Crosland of Laurinburg in North Carolina, United States, doesn't know what causes hiccups, but he's really good at it — he's been hiccupping non-stop for 43 years. And he's as proud as punch.

John's learned to swallow his hiccups, so they're not so obvious — more like a catch of the breath. But cures? Don't get him started.

"People tell me to take a glass of water and turn it up from the topside and drink it ... I had a man sneak up behind me and shoot a shotgun. I was in California and a doctor had me standing on my head up against the wall. You mention it ... people tell me what to do. But ain't none of it done me good," he says.

We've all been there John. At last count, there were about three hundred "never-fail" hiccup cures. Three hundred — and not one for the common cold. But do any of them actually work?

Well, for our sins, we're going to try to find out, and deliver a report card on the best ones.

Where better for a report card than Melbourne's Methodist Ladies College? Today's lesson plan is to give the young ladies the hiccups, then cure them.

Our guru Dr Robert Di Nicolantonio, will do the honours.

Hiccup school is in!

"What we're going to do is drink the pop and we're going to induce the hiccups. I want you to drink as quickly as you can. I want you to come forward if you have the hiccups ... and we're going to test which cure works," says Dr Di Nicolantoni says to a classroom of girls.

Dr Nicolantonio reckons the fizzy bubbles will irritate the girls' throats and send them into a hiccupping frenzy.

"For the last two and a half thousand years since Plato first reported it, it's pretty clear that irritation of the throat and stomach triggers a hiccup," he says.

He might have history on his side but still no hiccups. Our test has run into a little, er, hiccup.

Not to worry, Robert's a resourceful guy he's got a plan B: it's time to break out the hiccup-causing secret weapon, as it's hard to cure hiccups when you can't create them!

"We are going to use straws, our secret weapon... And I'll guarantee you'll all start hiccupping," says Dr Di Nicolantonio.

Brave man, Robert! He figures that the straws will increase the fizziness factor sending our young ladies into hiccup heaven.

Sadly, it just wasn't meant to be.

"Our biggest hiccup today, was the hiccup experiment itself," says Dr Nicolantonia.

The doctor thinks he failed, because most likely hiccups are generated in the primitive area of our brains, called the hypothalamus. The part that controls automatic things like heartbeat, and body temperature. The girls are trying to make hiccups happen by thinking about it at a conscious level, and they just don't work that way.

Of course, our 'Hiccup Man', John Francis Crosland, has the opposite problem. After 43 years he can't get rid of them, but a couple of tricks do bring some relief.

  • A simple drink of water helps.

    "And that works by stimulating and therefore inhibiting the nerves that also cause the hiccup," says Dr Nicolantonio.

  • John finds the best solution is to stay calm, and hold his breath. Holding your breath gets a tick from the doctor too.

    "If you hold your breath, what builds up in your blood stream is carbon dioxide. This has the effect of turning off the nerves, which are giving rise to the hiccup," he says.

    "I hold my breath and nine times out of 10, they'll stop," says John. Unfortunately for John, nine times out 10 they'll start right back up again.

John might be stuck with his hiccups until his dying day. Fact is there is no sure-fire way to kill the hiccup. But some cures are definitely better than others.

Number one. Drink from the wrong side of a glass.

By bending over you crush your lungs, making it hard to breathe, and that sends a message to your brain to re-boots your respiratory system, over-riding the hiccup.

  •  Number two. You can hold your breath or blow really, really hard on the end of your thumb.

    Again, it's tricking the brain into thinking the lungs aren't working right, and re-starting your breathing.

    Number three. Well, remember that primitive bit of brain that probably causes the hiccup? You can over-ride that by sparking up the conscious brain, and the best way to do that is a jolly good scare.

    Well, give them a try, they might work for you, but if nothing else, what we have learned is that hiccups are remarkably, stubbornly unpredictable, never, ever on cue — Small wonder they're one of our body's most amazing little mysteries.

    • It's well known babies kick and roll in the womb, but it seems they hiccup too. But why? One theory is it's to stop amniotic fluid getting into baby's lungs, perhaps it's to give breathing muscles a workout, or it could be a way of getting baby ready to suckle on mum's breast.

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