Hiccups are, by nature, pretty normal. Everyone gets them and the only really worrisome side effect is the possibility that they won’t automatically dissipate in a timely fashion. If they don’t? Even hiccups that last for months or years or record-setting decades typically don’t keep the inflicted from leading a normal life.
All that is great for the late Charles Osborne, a Guinness world record holder who spent 68 years hiccuping through two marriages, eight children, and numerous careers. But I still want to know why I hiccup so damn much.
How much? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. About several times a month, although I’m not quite neurotic enough to keep a hiccup diary. It isn’t often enough to annoy anyone except me and not sustained enough to even land me on local news. It is, though, enough that the sort of person who would write a column that could alternately be titled So Is This a Brain Tumor Or What? might start to wonder how often is it normal to hiccup and what makes someone more or less hiccup prone.
There is no such thing as a professional hiccup expert because there is no such thing as a distinct academic field of hiccup research. They’re not meaningfully dangerous, they’re not evolving, and they’re too capricious for any statistically worthwhile study. And yet, goddamn do people what to know what the deal is with hiccups. Basically, they’re a biological curiosity that has confounded centuries of hiccup hobbyists with their apparent insignificance.
Most of the colloquial reporting on hiccups comes in the form of pop-science articles offering potential cures or specious evidence in support of the New York Times’s apparent desire to make me terrified of my hiccups. Even work that contends with the how and why of hiccups does so on either the individual level with studies about intractable hiccups (cases that last for longer than two months) or on the universal level with admittedly incomplete origin theories. Very little exists on the rate and regularity of “normal” hiccups. But what information is out there is handily summarized in Robert Provine’s Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond.
The relevant chapter spans Plato’s mention of hiccups in his Symposium to the media-darling-turned-murderer, Hiccup Girl Jennifer Mee, with much of what is valuable for our purposes coming from Terrence Anthoney’s decades-long observations as well as Provine’s own vast data gathering. The book was immensely helpful, so I called up Provine for further questioning.
I also sought out a second opinion from Tyler Cymet, who conducted a five-year study on hiccup cures and serves as the chief of medical education at the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine. Here is what I learned.
Why exactly do I hiccup so much? No one really knows. What they do know is that my hiccups are idiosyncratic and personal, like the way I walk, though just why I hiccup the way and as often as I do are, again, a mystery.
“There’s no descriptive epidemiological study as to the ethnic groups or who gets which patterns,” Cymet says. (I assume this is his way of saying, I don’t know what makes someone especially hiccup prone, because no one has bothered to find out, because that is a silly thing with which to bother one’s medical degree-having self.)
“Every individual has a hiccup style. So if you hiccup once every 30 seconds for 20 minutes, every time you get hiccups, you’re going to have your own system of hiccuping once every 30 seconds for 20 minutes. Some people will hiccup for a week straight, some people will hiccup for 20 minutes, some people for three hours. There’s an intrinsic, individual hiccup pattern.”
He reasons that being saddled with a particularly invasive pattern would result in someone taking particular notice of their hiccups, as I have, but cites the lack of sufficiently rigorous research for an inability to comment on what would affect a person’s unique hiccup fingerprint.
For speculations on such, we turn to Provine’s book. The information presented is based not on an understanding of why hiccups behave a certain way but simply repeated proof that they do. Anthoney collected over 40 years of information about hiccups as they were experienced by friends, family, and other willing subjects; paired with self-reported hiccup experiences from 465 subjects collected by Provine, the data outline certain undeniable trends.
For example, if you are a fetus, then frequent hiccuping is quite normal. We hiccup more in utero than ever again, almost every day during gestation. The rate of hiccuping drops off precipitously with birth and from there, continues to slow. As Provine writes:
The frequency of hiccuping, as measured by the most recent hiccup, decreases with age, though there is a share decline in some subjects around the age of twenty, later than the anticipated inflection point around the age of puberty.
This second drop-off is also associated with a sex distinction. Adult women hiccup more frequently than adult men. That said, intractable hiccups buck both these trends, appearing most often in men over 40, when they are often symptomatic of some other affliction such as a diaphragmatic hernia.
My hiccups aren’t intractable, so it’s possible my comparative lack of years and testosterone are responsible for their irksome prevalence in my life. Still, since I seem to hiccup more, even, than other youngish women, I pressed Provine for behavioral factors.
You probably already know that drinking makes you hiccup, but I don’t drink much. He also explained that one need only check Youtube for abundant evidence that especially spicy foods will have a similar effect. Beyond that, surgery, steroid use, and a range of pathologies can all be short-term hiccup-inducers.
Ultimately, I find some combination of the two sets of research plausible enough. Likely, I am a just a relatively young woman with a persistent hiccup pattern and a proclivity for spicy food.
According to Provine’s work, it will be; I just have to wait until I’m older.
“The older you get, the less frequent it is,” he says. “After the age of 40, you may have zero to six bouts a year.”
There are already too many home remedies suggested on the internet for me to bother endorsing another one. But Provine’s research does contain one especially actionable bit of advice: If you’re going to try any “cures,” do so within the first few hiccups. As a bout persists, the hiccups become increasingly immune to any attempts to banish them, and you’re left to let them run their course.
Life is full of odd occurrences that happen just often enough to make you wonder Is It Normal? We’ll be examining some of those strange quirks here, and welcome any and all discussion of your own. Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or drop your query in the comments blow.