Hiccup origin solved; jury still out on solution

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Practically everyone’s had them, but almost no one can explain them.

Students, professors and other experts combined their knowledge to address the curiosity behind hiccups. What are they? What causes them? And, most importantly, how do you get rid of them?

Biology professor Curt Walker said the “hic!” noise occurs in the throat when the vocal chords close quickly under pressure caused by a spontaneous spasm of the diaphragm. The cause of these involuntary diaphragm spasms could be any sort of irritation of a cranial nerve called the vagus nerve. Two nerves, the left and right phrenic nerves, that branch off the vagus nerve will then “fire strangely,” causing contractions of the diaphragm, and, thus, causing hiccups.

Walker said multiple things can irritate the vagus or phrenic nerves and instigate the strange firings: emotional stress, a full stomach, drinking alcohol, or even sudden change in stomach temperature caused by drinking something really hot or cold.

“All of these things are going to cause those nerves to fire strangely, and so that’s what’s going to actually cause the hiccup at an anatomical level,” Walker said.

Popular hiccup banishing methods include holding your breath, drinking water, hanging upside-down and being frightened.

Others that aren’t as popular include eating peanut butter or drinking lemon juice.

Natalie Bergantino, a senior business major from Antigua, Guatemala, said holding her breath for 10 seconds sometimes does the trick, but she has no idea why.

Noelle Jacobson, a sophomore general education major from Simi Valley, Calif., said she gets rid of her hiccups by drinking from the far side of the cup while bending upside down, and it seems to work about 80-90 percent of the time.

Heather McDermott, a freshman general education major from Sandy, said holding her breath while drinking any liquid simultaneously works practically 100 percent of the time.

McDermott said she seriously doubts if hanging upside down would ever work, but she thinks differently of the fright method.

“I’ve heard of so many times when people have been scared and it’s worked,” she said.

McDermott isn’t exactly sure why her method succeeds, but she has a guess.

“I think maybe it works just because I think it’s going to work—it’s a psychological thing,” McDermott said.

Walker said in order to stop the strange nerve firings, hiccup victims can cure themselves by simply changing focus away from their hiccups. That may be why tactics like holding your breath, hanging upside down, or drinking water from the far side of the cup may work for some people: They concentrate on something else rather than their hiccups.

Eric Jensen, a massage therapist at Red Mountain Spa, has his own trick for banishing hiccups. He puts a finger in the middle of the sternum and simultaneously flicks two points on the sides of the forehead he calls the “brain points.”

“The chest is actually a point in acupuncture, and it’s supposed to stop hiccups,” Jensen said. “As for the brain points, it’s almost as if you’re having a dysfunction in your brain, I’m assuming, so when you flick the brain points, it kind of fixes it.”

Jensen said he once helped a stranger in a gas station who had violent hiccups. He said he received a skeptical look when he offered to cure him, but the man allowed him to try.

“So I leaned over and did the little trick,” Jensen said. “He looked at me funny. Then he kind of stopped, and he said, ‘They’re gone!’”