Friday, June 28, 2013

The Cure for Hiccups

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and intimations of substance abuse.


This post, simply enough, is about curing the hiccups.  I examine the existing literature on the topic (okay, some of it), point out the flaws inherent in traditional cures, and then unveil my simple remedy, which works 100% of the time and is demonstrably superior to all others.

In a perfect world, I’d have a research staff large enough that at any given time one or more researchers would have the hiccups and could test out these methods.  Instead, since I barely have one researcher (and he’d rather write than conduct research), I’ll have to settle for citing personal experience.

What causes the hiccups?

The answer is, who cares?  Okay, that’s not much of an answer, but then it was a rhetorical question to begin with.  Sure, there are plenty of explanations afloat, usually involving the vagus nerve, the diaphragm, and/or the esophagus,  but these explanations are about as satisfying as the Big Bang Theory—that is, not at all.  Suffice to say, everybody gets the hiccups, some people more often than others, and that’s just the way it is.

Okay, there is a valid reason for understanding what causes the hiccups, which is  to avoid getting them in the first place.  But I’m convinced that avoidance is a fool’s errand.  My older daughter used to get the hiccups a lot while she was still in the womb.  If, in utero, she’d gotten the hiccups whenever her mom did, we’d be on to something.  But there was zero correlation, and I cannot imagine that there’s much overlap between what goes on in a uterus and what goes on in the outside world.  Hiccups just happen.

The consumption cures

No, by “consumption cures” I don’t mean cures for tuberculosis.  I’m talking about the hiccup cures that require you to consume something.  There are two main websites I’ve consulted for this post:  “Reader’s Digest” and “How Stuff Works,” and they both start off with a classic remedy:  eating a tablespoon of sugar. 

I first came across this cure in “Dynamite” magazine when I was about nine; it promised that sugar would “kick the hics right out of your system!”  I found that sugar did work, but then my mom put the kibosh on it for health reasons, pointing me toward red wine vinegar instead.  (Coincidentally, vinegar is the second suggestion “Reader’s Digest” gives.)  Vinegar does work, but it’s not very pleasant.  In fact, when (at age nine) I recommended it to my brother Max, he reacted violently to the vinegar, running from the kitchen and simultaneously coughing, hiccupping, and crying.  The vinegar did end up curing his hiccups but he was really ticked.  (My older daughter will use it in a pinch, but she hates it too.)

“How Stuff Works” recommends an antacid.  This seems like overkill.  How about Benadryl, so you just sleep through the hiccups?  Or maybe heroin, would that work too? 

“Reader’s Digest” goes on to recommend peanut butter, honey, powdered cocoa, dill seeds, and hot sauce (though not all at once—these are  discrete remedies). 

Hot sauce is a laugh, because “How Stuff Works” tells you to avoid spicy foods.  (Never mind that avoiding something is a preventive measure, and this was supposed to be a list of cures.)  Many times I’ve gotten the hiccups from spicy salsa, but it’s absurd to avoid an entire cuisine on that basis.  Say you’re going out to eat with friends or family, and everybody wants Mexican:  are you really going to say, “No, we can’t do Mexican, I might get the hiccups”?  Yeah, right.

The problem with all these cures is that hiccups can strike at any time, and any place.  It’s just not practical to carry around dill seeds or vinegar with you.  You need a cure that travels with you all the time, even in the bathtub.

The water cures

Remedies abound that involve drinking water, usually with some weird twist like drinking upside down, or trying to put your mouth on the far edge of the glass.  I’ve watched my kids try many variations of this, none of which seem to work and most of which make a mess, particularly if a hiccup occurs during swallowing. 

My older daughter has tried drinking through a paper towel (which turns out to be one of the “Reader’s Digest” recommendations) and says it works, though her mom put the kibosh on it for health reasons.  It does seem likely that there are chemicals (bleach, perhaps?) in paper towels and you wouldn’t want to ingest them.  Now my daughter drinks water through a coffee filter, which her violin instructor recommended.  (“If there’s one thing you can’t do when you have the hiccups, it’s play the violin.”)  This seems like a fine solution, except a) coffee filters cost money, and b) once again, you’re not always going to have them around.

The scare technique

I don’t know how this “scare away the hiccups” myth got started.  I’ve tried to scare the hiccups out of a great many people and it never, ever works.  For example, a couple decades ago I had a girlfriend who got the hiccups constantly, and it drove me crazy, so one day while we were walking along the sidewalk, she hiccupping as usual, I suddenly screamed as loud as I could.  It wasn’t a terrified type scream—more of a James Brown type scream—but it certainly packed a punch:  she screamed too (the terrified type scream), and then started crying, and kept hiccupping through it all.

Besides, even if the scare method did work, it requires the action of another person, which means it relies on somebody else deciding to help you.  It’s not like you can ask somebody to scare you—with the element of surprise gone, what’s he going to do?  Pull out a gun?

The breathing “cures”

Respiration-related techniques are classics.  As a kid I tried holding my breath countless times and it never did a damn thing.  I’ve watched lots of other people try this one and it never works.  It just makes you look like an idiot, with your cheeks puffed out and your face all red and then you hiccup anyway.  Anybody who recommends this pointless, totally ineffective remedy deserves the hiccups he’ll still have after doing it.

To my astonishment, both “Reader’s Digest” and “How Stuff Works” recommend breathing into a paper bag.  Don’t they know this is how lowlife teenagers get high?  I have no idea whether or not this remedy works, nor do I care.  I’d rather have the hiccups than overdose on carbon dioxide and pass out.  What’s next:  curing hiccups by huffing model airplane cement?

The touch-based cures

My research did turn up two rather novel approaches for curing the hiccups.  The first is on WikiHow and goes like this:  “Press hard onto the palm of a friend/family member’s palm for 30 + seconds.  This gets rid of their hiccups if they are taken by surprise.”  I have several problems with this.  First, since when do palms have palms?  Second, even if it works, this technique doesn’t get rid of your hiccups; it gets rid of somebody else’s.  It requires the element of surprise, which you’re not going to get if you ask somebody to do it for you.  What are you supposed to do, tell them about it ahead of time and say, “If I ever get the hiccups, here’s what to do”?  And what if you get the hiccups on a bus or train, with no friends around?  My final issue with this technique is that it’s one of sixty-six methods listed on this website.  If any one of these actually worked, we wouldn’t need sixty-six of them.  WikiHow has about as much credibility here as “Cosmopolitan” with its perennial lists of bedroom man-pleasing techniques.

The second touch-based approach is described in the “Huffington Post.”  The author says, “Simply take the hand of the person afflicted and squeeze hard on the surface of the fingernail of the pinky finger for ten seconds. That’s it.”  Well, this is a fun and useful parlor trick, but once again it doesn’t seem to work on yourself; he goes on, “The jury is still out on whether the method can be self-administered.  I have found varying degrees of success using myself and my pinky as test subjects.”  This seems like a mealy-mouthed way of saying it doesn’t work on yourself.  And what’s the use of curing somebody else’s hiccups?  He doesn’t say anything about this requiring the element of surprise, but it would still be awkward asking a stranger on a crowded bus to squeeze the fingernail of your pinky.  It’s a little too close to “Pull my finger!”

(On a side note, the comments below the “Huffington Post” column are—as is so often the case—totally imbecilic.  Many readers attack the premise that a pressure point could affect the diaphragm, etc., seeming to miss that the writer himself distrusts accupressure, writing, “To me [this cure] is just magic.”  Besides, the author is an economist, so the reader is expected to take his theories on blind faith.)

The cure that actually works

The cure that actually works is most similar to the pinky trick.  I learned it back in the late ‘80s from my then-stepmother (who was the non-cruel type of stepmother).  She said it was a yoga thing based on pressure points.  (I am skeptical that this cure has anything to do with yoga because it works perfectly for me, yet I’m utterly incompetent at yoga.  Except for the corpse pose.  I could do corpse pose all day, and sometimes do.)

Without further ado, here is the anti-hiccup technique:  squeeze the last knuckle of your index finger between the tip of your thumb (same hand) on one side, and the last knuckle of your flip-the-bird finger on the other side.  I know that’s not very clear so here are a couple of photos:

You do this with both hands.  How long do you need to squeeze?  Well, that’s up to you:  simply for as long as it takes for you to realize that your hiccups are completely gone.  I guess I’d give it about ten seconds.  When I do this, the hiccups go away so quickly that there’s never even a second hiccup.  It’s brilliant:  immediate, silent, simple, and requires absolutely nothing but your two hands.

Alas, this cure doesn’t work for everybody.  I cannot explain why this should be.  My best guess is that the technique requires some very subtle fine-tuning that can only be acquired through trial and error.  I’m not talking about a lot of trial and error; I got this down almost instantly, as did my brother Geoff.  I taught it to all the deejays at a radio station I worked at, and one by one they learned the trick, every last one of them.  (I was their hero; the hiccups are a deejay’s worst nightmare.)

Maybe this cure is like using the touch-screen keyboard on a modern smartphone.  When I first got my Droid, I could barely type my unlock password—it would take me three or four tries.  I was convinced my fingers were just too stubby.  But soon enough I developed the same knack that all the other touch-screen typists seem to have and I’m surprised how fast I can go.

I (reluctantly) must report that this cure doesn’t work for my daughters, but then, their manual dexterity is highly specialized.  They can play the piano like the dickens but are helpless when it comes to a knotted shoelace or even a tangled jump rope.  The older one is being phased in to dishwashing duty and it’s painful to watch her try to scrub a pot; she couldn’t do worse if she used her feet.  So I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you don’t have success with this technique, there must be something wrong with you.

(Full disclosure:  this technique doesn’t work for my wife either, but I haven’t discounted the possibility that she refuses to really try, just out of spite.  I can’t blame her ... it’s surely no picnic being married to me.)

Why does it work?

Look, I don’t know anything about pressure points or yoga and I’ve already admitted I have zero knowledge in, and zero curiosity about, the actual biomechanical cause of the hiccups.  I don’t know why this trick works and I don’t much care.

Could this cure be a placebo?  I haven’t ruled that out.  If it is, it’s a strong placebo.  (I think “Strong Placebo” would be a good name for a rock band, don’t you?)  I figure if a placebo is effective, don’t knock it!  (The medical community clearly feels the same way; check out this article about a study finding that knee surgery is no more effective than placebo-like “sham surgery.”)

I chatted about this cure with my brother Bryan the other day, because he can’t get it to work.  “Could be that I just don’t have the faith,” he said.  “But I want to believe, I really do!”  He noted that the cure works for his oldest son, so I asked, “If it requires faith, how could you have instilled that faith in your son if you lack it yourself?”  He replied, “That’s a curious question that I too have pondered.”

My advice

My advice to you is not to question this cure, and not to doubt it ... just do it.  It really does work.  What else are you going to do?  Carry around a little baggy of dill seeds wherever you go?

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