For most of us, hiccups are an occasional, even fun, inconvenience. For people who hiccup for hours a day, however, the spasms can be unbearable.
Yet despite the dramatic advances in healthcare over the past century, people with so-called intractable hiccups face a carnival of treatments that sound truly medieval: drinking from the other side of the glass, get scared by someone, even “massage,” according to more than one scientific study.
But a team of researchers in Texas may have a better solution: a wide-mouth straw that its inventor calls the HiccAway. Scientists have developed the patent pending straw over the past few years and started selling it online last year.
Last month, they published a study in JAMA Network Open that found that 90% of people prefer the device to home remedies. While more rigorous studies need to show exactly how effective the device is, it is already providing relief to those struggling with hiccups.
Ali Seifi, a professor in the department of neurosurgery at UT Health Science Center in San Antonio, led the study and invented the HiccAway. Seifi has had many patients over the years with persistent and painful hiccups often caused by chemotherapy drugs.
“This is the reason I made the device,” Seifi said. “The hiccups they had from the cancer drugs were more disturbing and bothersome than the cancer itself.”
If that makes you incredulous, consider British musician Christopher Sands, one of the many people with intractable hiccups. For years, Sands has spent nearly every waking moment gasping every few seconds, even hampering his ability to eat. When he was able to swallow, the hiccups often made him vomit. In an interview with ABC News in 2010, he lamented that the hiccups had “ruined (his) life”.
HiccAway works by “resetting” the nerves whose misfires cause hiccups. Essentially, a hiccup is a spasm of the diaphragm, the muscle that inflates our lungs. You can reproduce the basic idea of hiccups by inhaling a small amount of air strongly. This spasm can be caused by spicy foods, alcohol, and even strong emotions.
The reason for the distinctive “snag” sound is that when this spasm occurs, the valves in our windpipe – the vocal cords, essentially – close, preventing more air from entering the lungs. Closing these valves, just as the lungs are about to receive a draft, causes the noise. It’s a bit like squeezing the air out of a juice pear and then covering the opening with your hand as the ball begins to re-inflate, producing a sort of “pop” sound.
For some reason, once the diaphragm and vocal cords start to hiccup, they get caught in a kind of feedback loop. Seifi knew that if he could somehow trigger the diaphragm and vocal cords at the same time – make them “forget about having fun with each other,” he said. maybe could stop the hiccups.
The breakthrough came in the form of a McDonald’s spoon.
“I knew I needed a pipe with one smaller inlet and the other bigger,” Seifi said. “Then one day my son was eating this ice cream from McDonald’s – the McFlurry. He had a spoon which is a long, clear plastic cone, which at the bottom near the spoon part is a hole.
Once her son finished the ice cream, Seifi washed the spoon and tried to drink the water through it. With a lot of effort, he managed to get water in his mouth. Seifi finally had a solution to his problem.
The straw required a lot of force to suck up the water, thus engaging the diaphragm. During this time, water rushed into the mouth, causing the vocal cords to close and preventing water from entering the lungs.
The cure for hiccups turned out to be a terrible drop.
“Honestly I can say, humbly, that I didn’t invent something like rocket science, I just think I was a good observer,” Seifi said.
Meghan Serafin, regional director of the Human Rights Campaign, has spent two decades battling the hiccups that occur after eating or drinking just about anything.
“If it lasts longer than about 30 minutes, that’s when it starts to get painful for me,” Serafin said.
A friend bought her a HiccAway last year to see if it would help.
“Honestly, I was very skeptical about it… but it works every time I’ve used it,” she said.
Of course, the device does not work for everyone. In the study published last month, around 10% of people said it didn’t work any better than typical home remedies.
And HiccAway won’t permanently cure you of hiccups. Seifi pointed out that the device provides temporary relief – usually stopping hiccups for about a day.
But for people like Serafin, even a temporary reprieve is welcome.
“It was really helpful,” she said.
HiccAway is already on sale online, but Seifi said it will hit HEB store shelves by September. His team is already preparing for a more ambitious study of the effectiveness of the device, this one using a kind of “placebo” straw to see if the research subjects evaluate the “real” straw better than the placebo.
Seifi said he didn’t hiccup often, but remembers struggling to keep up with home remedies as a child.
“When I was a child, they forced me to hold my breath for minutes until I felt like I was choking or drinking glasses of water back to back, which is difficult for one. 5 or 6 year old child, “he said. mentionned. “But now even one-year-olds can do it – you put that straw in the glass and the kid drinks water and it stops instantly.”