Can a Scare Cure the Hiccups?

Woman fighting off the hiccups.
Woman fighting off the hiccups. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

The recent death of a Fort Hood U.S. Army soldier in Killeen, Texas, shows that a belief in the folk cure of scaring away hiccups can have tragic effects when taken to the extreme, but does the cure have any basis if administered within reason?

Pfc. Isaac Lawrence Young, 22, died after allegedly being shot and killed by a fellow soldier trying to startle him out of a case of hiccups while the two men watched a football game. The accused shooter, Pfc. Patrick Edward Myers, 27, claims he thought his gun was loaded with blanks and is charged with manslaughter, Reuters reported.

There is no solid scientific proof to pair with the centuries of anecdotes that prop up the hiccup scare cure, but there are a number of reasons that the home remedy's value might go beyond the placebo effect.

Though hiccups' purpose remains elusive, their mechanism is well understood. They occur when rhythmic spasms of the diaphragm result in a noisy contraction of the vocal chords. [Why Do People Hiccup?]

Most of the common folk cures for hiccups seem to try to confront this phenomenon in one of two ways: by diverting the brain's resources away from the nerves responsible for the hiccups (for example, asking a sufferer "What did you have for breakfast two days ago?"); or by directly interfering with or stimulating the parts of the body involved in the hiccup (for example, massaging the throat, drinking water or eating a spoonful of peanut butter).

Some cures have the possible advantage of combining these two approaches, as when breath-holding interrupts the normal motion of the diaphragm while also increasing the body's level of carbon dioxide, which may cause the brain to neglect hiccup upkeep and focus instead on the pressing matter of resuming oxygen supply, according to the website of the NYU Medical Center's Department of Otolaryngology.

A sudden scare is another potential dual threat, capable of jump-starting the breath pattern while also giving an overriding stimulus to the sympathetic nervous system, which activates the fight-or-flight stress response.

In a case report published in the journal Canadian Family Physician in 2000, Aya Peleg and Dr. Roni Peleg discuss a 40-year-old man who was suddenly cured of a four-day case of the hiccups when he ejaculated during intercourse with his wife. 

The authors speculated the unexpected cure worked for the same reason as the scare method: "A mechanism similar to this occurs when someone is startled, resulting theoretically in sympathetic stimulation that might lead to a cessation of hiccups," they wrote.

They concluded the report by adding another potential remedy to the archive: "Under circumstances in which sexual intercourse with a partner is not possible, masturbation might be tried as a means of stopping intractable hiccups."

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Live Science Staff
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