Hiccup

We are all familiar with (hick) slightly uncomfortable feeling (hick) it’s a hiccup (hick).

Maybe you swallowed too much air at once, ate your lunch at breakneck speed, or took a sip of something too fizzy or alcoholic. Maybe you’ve been laughing at a phenomenal joke for too long – or maybe you’ve just gotten overexcited for no reason.

The fact is, any of these things (and many more) can trigger a hiccup cycle. And while most attacks are mild and last only a few minutes, they can sometimes get out of hand. almost 4,000 Americans are still hospitalized for hiccups every year.

All of which begs the question: At what point in our evolution did humans start hiccups? And besides being a nuisance, what is its purpose? Scientists have several theories.

Anatomy of hiccups

Although the action seems like a fairly simple chain of events, hiccups can be quite complex from a biological point of view.

Basically, your brain tells you diaphragm — the large dome-shaped muscle located under the lungs that helps you breathe — a sudden downward movement. This powerful contraction forces air into your throat involuntarily, but it gets stuck on its way to the lungs.

Why? Because at the same time the change in pressure causes an opening between your vocal cords called glottis, to click. As a result, you make this characteristic hick sound and maybe even experience a full-body twitch for good measure.


Read more: Deep, Slow Breathing: An Antidote for Our Age of Anxiety?


Scientists aren’t yet sure exactly why the brain starts the whole process in the first place, or what causes it to stop after minutes or hours. In the majority of cases, no serious illness is to blame.

But sometimes hiccups lasting more than 48 hours accompany structural damage or infectious or inflammatory diseases. In the case of one person, the main cause of a chronic bout of hiccups is a single hair touching their eardrum. In another case, however, a young man found relief from his four-year hiccups only after life-saving surgery removed a tumor in his brain stem.

What is the point of hiccups?

With all these disadvantages and almost no advantages to speak of, you might be wondering if hiccups serve any purpose at all. Well, some scientists argue positively.

They point to the fact that even human fetuses hiccup long before they are born. In fact, diaphragmatic spasms are more common in infants than in adults. It is possible that this reflex prevents the fetus from inhaling the amniotic fluid while it is still in the womb; likewise, it can prevent newborns from choking on milk while nursing.

And others suggest that hiccups in the womb trains the respiratory muscles of the fetus for all the breathing they will have to do after birth.

But humans aren’t the only animals that hiccup; almost any species that breathes exclusively air – including all mammals – can suffer the same fate. (Birds and reptiles, on the other hand, get a free pass.)

Actually, that’s the reason another theory, which posits that hiccups are simply an evolutionary “leftover” in mammals dating all the way back to our fish ancestors. When these species switched from gill-based respiration in water to lung-based respiration on land, while still possessing both organs, a respiratory system that allowed them to rapidly close the glottis and direct water only to the gills was useful.

We see a similar process play out on a smaller scale when tadpoles grow to become frogs. And that may not be a coincidence; believe it or not, the neural patterns that generate hiccups in humans are nearly identical to the neural patterns involved in breathing in amphibians.

Hiccup Tips and Tricks

So far, world record for longest bout of hiccups it still belongs to Charles Osborne, an American who “began hiccups in 1922 while trying to weigh a pig before slaughtering it.” Unable to find a cure for 68 years, he hiccups about 430 million times.

A doctor at the Mayo Clinic was successful pause his hiccups, but only as long as Osborne could breathe a poisonous mixture of carbon monoxide and oxygen. (Spoiler: It wasn’t very long.) Eventually, the hiccups went away on their own in early 1990—about a year before Osborne’s death at age 97.

Nowadays, a quick Google search will give you a host of “tried and tested” remedies: get scared, drink ice cold water, hold your breath, swallow sugar, bite into a lemon, hug your knees… the list goes on.

But the sad truth is that none of these drugs do backed by science. Some experts tentatively recommend techniques that increase carbon dioxide levels in the lungs and relax the diaphragm (such as breathing into a paper bag). Others recommend exploring breathing techniques, aiming for a breathing rate that rebalances your nervous system and relieves physiological stress.

For persistent hiccups, doctors sometimes turn to prescriptions such as gabapentin, baclofen, and chlorpromazine. A indeed a tried and tested remedy, however, probably depends on fully understanding what causes the hiccups in the first place.

In that case, don’t hold your breath!

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