Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Truth About Hiccups

So I found this article on MSN today and thought it was very educational...

Hi Bill,
Why do we get hiccups? And can we cure them? (Can't--hiccup--stop--hiccup--hiccupping--hiccup!) --Diaphragm Hammer

Dear (heek!) Diaphragm Hammer,

Notice how often you swallow. Try making tally marks on a piece of paper while you're watching a TV show, for example. Most of us swallow every few seconds. Even when we're nowhere near food or something to drink, we're gulping away. Your mouth is continuously producing saliva, and it has to end up somewhere. So, down it goes. Meanwhile, as you may realize, you have to keep breathing. If you don't, well, you'll probably miss the rest of this column.

We humans breathe through our nose or mouth. For a short way, the air moves down or up the same passage that we use for swallowing--our throat*. We have a muscular trapdoor in our throat that keeps the stuff intended for our stomach from going down our trachea, the windpipe connected to our lungs. This vital valve is our good ol' epiglottis*. To keep inhaled air from going down your esophagus (your stomach tube), and to keep food and saliva from going down your trachea, your epiglottis is working all the time. It's a swinging door that's always moving and always closing pretty hard one way or the other.

Because all of this action is connected to breathing, your diaphragm* (the big breathing muscle below your lungs) gets into the act, as well. You can't be inhaling or exhaling and swallowing at the same time, even if you breathe through your nose. The diaphragm can't be pulling air down or pushing air up while saliva or food is coming down your throat. All of the actions of all these muscles have to be coordinated by your brain.

Also in your throat, you'll find your voice box, or larynx*. On top of the larynx is a somewhat different expandable and contractible gizmo called the glottis. It's a long, narrow, muscular opening that lets only air pass over your vocal chords. (Both epiglottis and glottis come from the Latin word for "tongue.")

Once in a while, often when you find yourself eating a bit too quickly, your brain sends conflicting signals to your diaphragm and epiglottis: "Close the esophagus and open the trachea--no, wait. I mean, pull the diaphragm and open the--hold it--I mean the food tube--no, the windpipe. Wait. Now, swallow and breathe. Yikes!" Once in a while your diaphragm contracts and forces air through your glottis, and you feel a bump and often hear that "heek" sound. That's when you have the hiccups.

Your nerve fibers have produced too many charged calcium ions near the muscles of your glottis and your diaphragm. They spasm; your brain triggers your nervous system to send a correcting signal, but it's too late or not quite of the right strength, and you hiccup again. Often there's an imbalance that is like a resonance. The signals build up and let go at regular intervals, like a sign flapping in a breeze.The way to stop the hiccups seems to be to provide a new clear signal to your body--either a signal for swallowing or breathing. That's why for some people, it helps to hold a breath. For others, swallowing several sips of water in succession does the trick. You have to clear or overwhelm the confusing diaphragm-glottal-epiglottal noise. You can do it. Just swallow; I mean, hold your breath. Hiccup--I mean...

Hiccups can be quite a nusense sometimes. I once almost got kicked out if a Bible Class in college (by Lindsy's neighbor) because I had the hiccups. He told me to make them stop or leave (uh, don't you think I would if I could?). It is pretty funny when you think of all the ways people use to get rid of hiccups. Here are just a few I've tried:

1) Eat a spoon full of sugar. This is what my mom always told us to do. Actually, I think this was Mary Poppins' idea, and it was to make the medicine go down, but I wasn't telling my mom that.

2) Drink a glass of water upside down. Yes, it can be done. I'm actually quite good at it, but it takes talent and practice.

3) Have them scared out of you. I got paid in ice cream once to scare our intern, Kody, when he had the hiccups (not by him, by another secretary). He jumped and screamed like a girl!

4) Lay on the floor and put several heavy books on your stomach and raise them using your diaphram until your hiccups go away.

5) Distract yourself. Focusing on something else is the best way to get them to go away.

Whatcha got?

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