Friday Weird Science: Got Hiccups? We have the cure for you!

Jan 23 2009 Published by under Friday Weird Science

As some of you may recall (considering it's my one post that got the most hits ever ever ever), I've previously used weird science to cover various hypotheses on how to deal with your nasal congestion. But it turns out that sex is for more than your nose! After all, what can more adversely affect your quality of life than a really terrible case of...the hiccups? Peleg and Peleg. "Case report: sexual intercourse as potential treatment for intractable hiccups". Canadian Family Physician, 2000.
This is a case study garnered from the bibliography of Mary Roach's book "Bonk: the curious coupling of science and sex". Hopefully I will be able to blog a decent number of the papers she cites, which pretty much all qualify as weird science. Hats off to Mary Roach!

I'm sure we've all had that case of the hiccups that wouldn't go away. I had a case that went on for TWO HOURS once. It's awful, your chest gets sore, you're tired, you just wish you could stop. So what is a hiccup?
A hiccup is a pathologic respiratory reflex, where one or both sides of your diaphragm spasm. When this happens, you get sudden inspiration (or inhalation of air) and a closing of the vocal chords, creating that "Hic!" sound we're so used to. Apparently you can get a spasm on just one side or both sides of your diaphragm, and I really now want to know what a one-sided hiccup feels like, and whether it feels drastically different from the two-sided variety.
Hiccups can result from lots of things, such as ingestion of excessively spicy food, burping, laughing too hard, tumors in a particular place, and excessive consumption of alcohol. Sometimes it can result from pressure, stimulation, or irritation of the phrenic nerve, which is the nerve that innervates your diaphragm. Usually hiccups will resolve on their own (Sci prefers scaring people, as the gasp or altered breathing can break the diaphragm spasm), but in really bad cases, they can persist for YEARS. Apparently the Guiness Book of World Records lists the longest case as lasting 68 years. Poor guy. When hiccups persist, they're pretty awful. Keep you from sleeping, eating very much, really doing a lot of anything. Apparently, in some cases, people have DIED.
In this case report, a 40-year-old man was being treated with corticosteroids for intractable lower back pain. He'd tried NSAIDs, and even alternative medicine, but nothing was working. Finally, his neurologist gave him a corticosteroid injection into the most painful area. The guy felt immediate relief from the pain, but about six hours later, he got a really bad case of the hiccups. Coritcosteroids have been implicated in causing hiccups (Lewitt, 1982, Vazquez, 1993, Kanwar, 1993, Gilson, 1998), so it wasn't unprecedented. At first he tried all the usual remedies for stopping the hiccups, like a teaspoonfull of sugar, or drinking a glass of water backwards. Then he got desperate and anxious, and tried treating himself with chlorpromazine (an antipsychotic, I'd really like to know where he GOT that if he wasn't prescribed it). Nothing worked. Apparently he also tried massaging his soft palate with a Q-tip. I had never heard of this remedy before, it sounds like it might induce vomiting if you went back too far, which I suppose is a way to get rid of your hiccups...
Anyway, the hiccups continued for THREE DAYS. The man was apparently unable to work or sleep. But nature calls, you know? On the fourth day, he had sex with his wife. Hiccups continued throughout the sexual encounter (I know he couldn't help it, but way to ruin the mood, you know? I give props to his wife), until the moment of ejaculation, when the hiccups suddenly stopped, and apparently he didn't suffer another case of hiccups for the next year. Clearly, he found his most effective treatment. Not to mention a good pick-up line: "come here, hon, I have the hiccups like you wouldn't BELIEVE".
Apparently intractable hiccups lasting for more than two days occurs far more often in men than in women (Souadjian, 1968). There are seveal ways that doctors use to treat the hiccups, including drugs like chlorpromazine, and other drugs with sedative or anticonvulsant properties. Folk remedies usually involve something to stimulate the pharynx, like spoonfuls of sugar. Interestingly, they also recommend rapid ingestion of two glasses of liquor, which is what Sci is now using as her hiccup treatment of choice. Medicinal, you know.
So why did sex stop this guy's hiccups? Chances are the sympathetic stimulus you get from ejaculation probably broke the relfex arc that caused the hiccups, similar to the stimulus you'd get if you were startled. So it probably won't work for everyone, and the authors note that nothing has been proven, and this is definitely a one-time case.
But hell, we could all use another excuse, right? For now, though, Sci is sticking with the liquor, it's a lot easier to obtain and consume in public.
1) Lewitt, PA et al. "Hiccups with dexamethasone therapy". Annals of Neurology, 1982. 12: 405-406.
2) Vazques, JJ. "Persistent hiccups as a side effect of dexamethasone" Human Experimental Toxicology, 1993. 12:52.
3) Kanwar, AT et al. "Hiccup-a side effect of pulse therapy" Dermatology, 1993. 187: 279.
4) Gilson, I. "Merijuana for intractable hiccups". The Lancet, 1998. 351:267.
5) Souadjian, JV et al. "Intractable hiccup: etiology factors in 220 cases." Prograduate medicin, 1968. 43:72-7.
Peleg, R., Peleg, A. (2000). Case report: Sexual intercourse as potential treatment for intractable hiccups Canadian Family Physician, 46, 1631-1632

8 responses so far

  • Art says:

    It cures nasal congestion, and now, hiccups. Is there anything sex isn't good for?

  • Rob W says:

    I've also read that, er, "digital rectal massage" can cure hiccups:

  • Scicurious says:

    Ack! Rob, don't ruin it! I was going to do that one next week!!!

  • chezjake says:

    Sex as a hiccup cure sounds great, but it obviously can't be recommended for kids. One thing that really seems to work well for anyone old enough to feel embarrassment is to have them look you in the eye, then tell them, "I don't believe you have hiccups. C'mon, hiccup for me. I'll bet you can't do it." -- And they can't. Works almost every time. I'm guessing that trying to exert conscious control to force a hiccup actually interrupts the reflex spasm.

  • G Felis says:

    Damn! Rob beat me to it. That has to be my favorite bit of Ig-Nobel prize-winning research EVAR!!1!!11!

  • Chris says:

    I'll have to test this. I don't get hiccups frequently, but when I do, they tend to last for the day (at least sporadically).

  • AlexL says:

    This is a case report, so they should follow this up with controlled studies. And for those of us who are single and have persistent hiccups, we're (ironically) screwed?
    BTW, it was great meeting you on ScienceOnline!

  • amanda says:

    So my bf had some really bad hiccups and we just had sex and has soon as he got off, his hiccups stopped. Great tip.