Before a sudden hiccup, a precisely timed series of events occur. First, the diaphragm involuntarily contracts, forcing us to inhale rapidly. Then about 35 milliseconds later, the vocal cords snap shut, provoking a sharp "hic".
How to stop hiccups, however, is not such a precise science. And there is, sadly, little medical literature on the involuntary contractions of the diaphragm.
Some pharmaceuticals can be effective in treating up to 80 per cent of persistent hiccups. But medical experts have also endorsed other unusual treatments.
These include hypnosis, acupuncture, rectal massage, sexual stimulation, ejaculation, and even marijuana. The chosen treatment is often based on patients’ and physicians’ preferences.
But first things first: when do you need to treat hiccups? When hiccups last more than two consecutive days, they are considered persistent, and when they last longer than two months, they are called intractable. In both those cases, it’s worth consulting a doctor to identify the cause.
Ending stubborn hiccups with… a rectal massage
Studies from 1988 and 1990 were the first to detail case studies terminating intractable hiccups with a rectal massage.
In both studies, physicians reported performing a digital rectal massage - moving the finger in a circular motion inside the rectum - to treat the spasms.
They said the technique successfully ended the hiccups and called on physicians to try the method before considering a pharmaceutical treatment.
The first scientific paper about rectal massage to end hiccups even saw the doctor who published it, Francis Fesmire, win the 2006 Ig Nobel Prize in medicine, a satiric prize that celebrates unusual achievements in scientific research.
Orgasms keep hiccups away
A decade after the first studies using rectal massage to cure hiccups, another group of scientists reported on an unconventional case of a healthy 40-year-old man who had hiccups for days.
On the fourth day of continuous hiccuping, the man had sexual intercourse with his wife, reporting hiccups throughout the sexual interlude until ejaculation, when they “suddenly and completely ceased” and did not recur in the following 12 months.
Fesmire, the doctor famous for his study on rectal massage, told New Scientist in 2006 that the best cure for intractable hiccups was in fact sexual intercourse, because an orgasm triggers an “incredible stimulation of the vagus nerve” - a key cranial nerve and the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which oversees crucial bodily functions including digestion, heart rate, and breathing.
In his own study, “Hiccups: a common problem with some unusual causes and cures,” Juan Brañuelas, a Spanish general practitioner, hypothesised that sexual intercourse may help to end persistent hiccups “as a result of the sympathetic stimulus stemming from ejaculation, which may terminate the reflex arc causing the hiccups”.
Why can’t scientists agree on how to cure hiccups?
Robert Provine, a late neuroscientist who brought scientific rigour to the study of hiccups, used to say that the challenge is that it's simply not possible to go into a lab and ask someone to have hiccups.
“Hiccups are also difficult to study because they usually have no clinical repercussions; studying it would be an act of mere curiosity,” Brañuelas told Euronews Next.
The very random and non-serious nature of hiccups means existing medical literature “usually involves people with hiccups that have lasted days, weeks, or years. In which cases they are generally a symptom of a more significant problem,” he explained.
In the absence of scientific research, it is no surprise that dozens of home remedies have emerged to ease the irritating condition.
Hiccup home remedies across Europe
Interestingly, tips to stop hiccups vary across Europe, but none are backed by medical evidence, Brañuelas said.
Euronews’s newsroom being a rich melting pot of cultures, we asked our colleagues for some of the tips most commonly dispensed in their home country.
Germans recommend holding your breath for as long as possible while trying to remember what you ate for breakfast (or on your last birthday). And that a ‘hic’ means someone is thinking of you; to stop it, you have to find out who that person is.
The most common trick against hiccups in Portugal is to hold your breath for a set number of seconds - the exact number varies from family to family, but it’s between five and 30.
In Spain, as in many other countries, they say that the best cure for hiccups is a good frightening ‘boo!’ as well as bending over and trying to drink water from the opposite side of a glass.
In France, some advise letting a sugar cube dissolve on the tongue to stimulate the vagus nerve, which acts on gastric secretion and the vocal cords.
Some of the tips above are even listed by the UK’s National Health System.
However, the NHS website adds: “Although many people find these things helpful, there's no evidence that they work for everyone”.