Eduardo had been hiccuping every five minutes for two years. If anyone could have been more miserable, it’s hard to imagine. Desperate for any solution, Eduardo and his wife showed up at the outpatient clinic of the Tucson, Arizona, holistic hospital where I was practicing. While Eduardo and I were discussing his case, I had an assistant mix up 4 ounces of plain yogurt with 2 teaspoons of salt. I suggested to Eduardo that he eat the salty yogurt and relax in the waiting room. After downing the yogurt, Eduardo stopped hiccuping for the first time in two years.
To say that Eduardo was shocked would be putting it mildly. But two days later he returned, still hiccup-free, along with his entire family and a full enchilada dinner, with all the trimmings, for the whole staff. A month later, a follow-up call confirmed that Eduardo was still blessedly hiccup-free.
I learned the remedy from my mentor. I have seen it work countless times. It’s my “secret weapon” for this pesky problem.
Why hiccups occur
Hiccups (or “hiccoughs,” named for the sound) are sudden, brief, irritable, involuntary spasms of the diaphragm muscle. When the muscle contracts repeatedly, the glottis (the opening between the vocal cords) snaps shut, creating the hiccup sound. Irritation of the vagus nerve, which travels from the brain to the stomach, can also cause hiccups. Ayurvedic practitioners say that chronic constipation can aggravate the condition.
Hiccups are associated with a variety of diseases, including pneumonia, kidney failure, and Addison’s Disease, but generally they are not serious and have no obvious reason for occurring. Common conditions go along with hiccups, but none has been shown to be the cause. Swallowing air along with your food from eating too fast may bring on a case of the hiccups. Irritating the diaphragm by eating too much, eating fatty foods, or drinking alcohol (the classic drunk hiccup) can make you vulnerable to hiccups.
A round of the hiccups is seldom a medical emergency. For hiccups that last for more than three hours, affect your sleeping patterns, interfere with eating, or are accompanied by severe abdominal pain or spitting up blood, you should seek medical attention.
There are as many hiccup remedies as there are people. Most of the remedies, in my experience, don’t stand up to their reputations—but a few truly are outstanding. Over the years, I have collected several.
Mechanical approaches to controlling hiccups center on increasing carbon dioxide buildup in the blood, which is why various methods of holding your breath are effective. If the vagus nerve is stimulated, it can relieve your hiccups. The drinking water or pulling on your tongue methods use this approach. Sudden frights or smelling salts also change breathing patterns and are favorite cures.
A favorite technique along these lines is to drink a glass of water backwards. Lean forward over the glass. Put your mouth on the opposite rim of the glass. Drink as much of the glass of water as possible. A variation is to drink an entire glass at one gulp, without a breath. In stubborn cases, a complete exhale before the drink intensifies the effect. Pressure on the “Heimlich maneuver” spot in the abdomen can be effective.
Several clinicians have successful acupressure remedies for hiccups. Bill Schoenbart, an acupuncturist in Asheville, North Carolina, says, “To stop hiccups on another person, locate UB 17 on the back. It’s about one and a half inches lateral to the seventh thoracic vertebra, on both sides. You can press the points while the person leans back. It usually works.”
A report in the American Journal of Gastroenterology points to a Korean hand acupressure treatment. A seventy-year-old patient experienced uncontrollable hiccups for three months, hiccuping continuously throughout the day. The patient was treated with Korean hand acupuncture at points K-F3 (located on the palm side of the hand in the middle of the distal phalanx of the fifth finger) and K-A12 (on the palm above the third metacarpal bone). The hiccups stopped completely after the second thirty-second treatment.
Another acupressure self-treatment technique is to rest the heels of the palms on both cheekbones, with the hands over the eyes. Pulling the thumbs in toward the palms, massage the temples. Then lightly press the tip of the nose with a fingertip.
Rochester, New York, acupuncturist Ric Warren applies pressure to the inside of the wrist, about two inches above the crease, or about four inches above the belly button. Warren claims that the pressure points adjust the “rebellious liver qi” that causes a swarm of symptoms, including nausea and hiccuping.
Matthew Wood, a nationally known herbalist and author from Minneapolis, says, “The best method is to take a tablespoonful of pure white sugar. I have used this method personally and have found that it works about nine out of ten times within the first three hiccups. In fact, I often feel an almost anesthetic relaxation down the gullet as soon as I swallow the sugar. I believe, consequently, that there is an actual medicinal virtue in white sugar. In short, I consider white sugar to be a specific for this one thing only: hiccup.” This method was verified in a study in The New England Journal of Medicine. The sugar was beneficial for nineteen out of twenty patients, some of whom had been suffering for as long as six weeks. Ayurvedic practitioners have a variation on this theme: Mix 1 teaspoon of honey with 1 teaspoon of castor oil and swallow.
Herbal treatments can work for hiccuping. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), hiccuping is a symptom of energy moving upward. It should be treated by herbs and foods that have a “downward” movement. One such food is watermelon (as opposed to garlic, which moves in an upward direction).
Acupuncturist and founder of the American Herbalists Guild, Michael Tierra, says, “The standard Chinese treatment is a tea made from the calyx of the persimmon called kaki.” (The calyx is the green outer whorl around the stem.) This directs the flow of qi downward, affecting belching and hiccups. Kaki is used almost exclusively for hiccup management. It is often combined with cloves, another downward-moving herb. Use 3 to 9 g per day of the herb, brewed for chronic conditions. Two g of the combination, brewed, should be adequate for an attack.
TCM also favors citrus fruits, especially tangerine. Eat a tangerine to abort an attack, or brew a tea from dried tangerine, mandarin orange, or orange peels. Fresh ginger is a favorite TCM cure. Suck on slices of the fresh root. Ayurvedic practitioners suggest sucking on cardamom seeds.
Ed Smith, founder of Herb Pharm, a high-quality herb company, recalls a person hospitalized for a case of hiccups which had not ceased for a couple of weeks. The doctors tried several drug therapies to no avail. Then, says Smith, the person took “one dose of Lobelia/Skunk Cabbage Compound and the hiccup ceased entirely in about one minute.” This herbal remedy is a renowned one in North American traditional herbalism. Made famous by Jethro Kloss in his famous book Back to Eden (in which he called it Antispasmodic Tincture), the formula includes lobelia seed, skullcap, skunk cabbage, myrrh, black cohosh, and cayenne.
The final verdict on hiccup cures? There are a million of them, but a few seem to be conspicuously helpful. Hiccups that won’t stop aren’t the end of the world, but they sure are aggravating. A simple remedy might just put your day back on track.
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa is a health educator who lives in Eugene, Oregon.