How to Treat Hiccups

Nearly everyone has experienced hiccups, but what exactly are they? It used to be thought that a hiccup is just a simple muscle spasm of the diaphragm, but that was apparently disproven more than 40 years ago. Instead, hiccups involve a complex, orchestrated pattern of muscle contractions. But, why?

Hiccups might be a leftover from the womb. During fetal life, “hiccups are universally present, their incidence peaking in the third trimester…[This] suggest[s] that hiccups might represent a necessary and vital primitive reflex” that would permit in-the-womb training of the breathing muscles without choking on amniotic fluid.

In adulthood, nearly anything can trigger hiccups. Case in point: A 19-year-old woman presented with persistent hiccups. Her physical exam was normal except for an ant crawling on her eardrum. Once the ant was removed, her hiccups stopped.

There appear to be as many cures for hiccups as there are causes, as I discuss in my video How to Stop Hiccups. As the famous Dr. Mayo put it, the less we know about something, the more treatments we seem to have for it—and perhaps “there is no disease which has had more forms of treatments…than has persistent hiccups.”

There are drugs, of course. There are always lots of drugs, from thorazine to apomorphine, but there are also a whole slew of non-pharmacological approaches—from breathing into a paper bag and drinking from the far side of a glass to smearing mustard on your tummy (as you can see at 1:24 in my video). “Many of these ‘remedies’ have not been tested and some appear to have been invented ‘purely for the amusement of the patient’s friends’.” One method, “forcible traction of the tongue” (which means pulling on someone’s tongue) was attributed to the great Dr. Osler, the first Chief Physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, but the “therapy, however, is much older and (perhaps not surprisingly) of French origin.”

Another trick that might work to cure hiccups is “a modified Heimlich maneuver,” consisting of just three thrusts and moderate pressure. In one instance, it was so successful the patient’s “hiccups ceased immediately.” In general, however, “[t]reatment is notably disappointing, as is evidenced by the hundreds of remedies have been tried, none of which have been regularly curative.” You know doctors are starting to get desperate when they suggest things like chilling the ear lobe, and you know they are really getting desperate when they have to add prayer to the end of a miscellaneous hiccup cures list.

“Use of vinegar to relieve persistent hiccups in an advanced cancer patient” was the paper that started me down the hiccup rabbit hole. I was reviewing the latest research on vinegar and stumbled across a case where, “[a]fter the failure of common treatments for hiccups, the patient was given a sip of vinegar and his hiccups abated”—stopped after just a single sip. Evidently, sour tastes, such as vinegar and lemon, have been used to treat hiccups since the 1930s, but “nonpharmacological remedies such as vinegar…fell out of favor with the widespread use of pharmacotherapy,” that is, drugs. After all, how much can you charge for a sip of vinegar?

If worse comes to worst, there is the “phrenic nerve crush” surgery, which is as bad as it sounds. Before going that route, though, you may find it “surprising how many patients with hiccups respond to digital compression of the eyeballs.” Yes, we’re talking about digit as in finger, as in pushing your finger into someone’s eyes as a counter-irritation measure. That will get their mind off their hiccups!

If a finger in the eye somehow doesn’t distract them enough, doctors can try “digital rectal massage.” A 27-year-old man presented to the ER with “intractable hiccups.” Emergency staff tried massaging other places and even tried the digital eyeball compression, but nothing seemed to do it. So, bend over. “Digital rectal massage was then attempted using a slow circumferential motion”—and it worked! So, before giving patients drugs, maybe we would give them a massage. It’s “easy to perform” and may be less dangerous than sticking your fingers into people’s eye sockets, which, if you’re in medical school and have to memorize all these ridiculous names, is known as the Dagnini-Aschner Maneuver. (Medicine loves its eponyms.)

Speaking of maneuvers, how’s this for a pick-up line? “Hello. (Hic!) Want to help me (hic!) cure my hiccups?” In one case, on the fourth day of continuous hiccuping, the patient’s hiccups finally “suddenly and completely ceased,” with some spousal help, at the point of climax. “It is unclear,” the doctor wrote, “whether orgasm in women leads to a similar resolution, an issue that could be investigated further.” 

And it was, back in 1845. An infamous, disturbing case report that amounted to effectively bragging about sexual assault was published in what was to be become the New England Journal of Medicine. A young, religious woman with intractable hiccups fell into the hands of a Dr. George Dexter. He first attempted the best modern medicine could offer—bloodletting—but she continued to hiccup, until he pressed his hand on her genitals for a few minutes and that apparently worked. This went on for month after month, with the doctor frequently calling in his colleagues to show them this “singular phenomena.”

Who was this guy? “Although his interaction with the young female patient would not meet today’s ethical standards”—you could say that again!—“his medical observation was valid…” Even though rectal massage and sexual stimulation may help, “this kind of recommendation is reserved for carefully selected patients!”

DO NOT drink vinegar straight. In this blog, I talked about taking a tiny sip, not full-on drinking it. If you do drink instead of sip, you can make the problem worse, as I discuss in my video Vinegar Mechanisms and Side Effects. Vinegar can be great stuff, though. Check out my video series to find out why I include it in my own family’s daily diet:

There’s another way to treat hiccups—one that I’ve used myself since I was a kid. Since then, I’ve never had more than one or two hiccups because I can stop them in their tracks. Learn my trick in my video How to Strengthen the Mind-Body Connection.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Vitamin D Supplements for Reducing Cancer Mortality

It all started with a famous study entitled “Do sunlight and vitamin D reduce the likelihood of colon cancer?” that was published in 1980. Johns Hopkins University researchers were trying to figure out why states like New Mexico and Arizona have only about half the colon cancer rates of states like New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Could it be because New Mexicans and Arizonans get so much more sun? The researchers proposed that perhaps vitamin D, known as the sunshine vitamin, is a protective factor against colon cancer. Since then, sun exposure has also been associated with lower rates of 14 other types of cancer.

As I discuss in my video Do Vitamin D Supplements Reduce the Risk of Dying from Cancer?, vitamin D may also affect cancer survival. Higher blood levels of vitamin D were associated with lower mortality of patients with colorectal cancer. How much lower? Nearly half the mortality. And, the higher the vitamin D levels, the lower the death rate appeared to fall. This may explain why the survival rate from colon cancer may depend in part “on the season of diagnosis.” The risk of rapid death is lowest if you’re diagnosed in the fall after you’ve spent the summer building up your vitamin D stores. Other risk factors could be seasonal, too. For example, perhaps people are taking advantage of the fall harvest and eating healthier, which might explain lower risk in the autumn. Additionally, “[a]lcohol intake is a risk factor and may be highest in the winter season…” What about physical activity? In the summer, we may be more likely to be outside running around, not only getting more sun, but also getting more exercise, which may itself be protective.

These kinds of studies just provide circumstantial evidence. Establishing a cause-and-effect relationship between colon cancer and vitamin D deficiency using observational studies is challenging because of confounding factors, such as exercise habits—so-called lurking variables. For example, there may be a tight correlation between ice cream sales and drowning deaths, but that doesn’t mean ice cream causes drowning. A more likely explanation is that there is a lurking third variable, like hot weather in summertime, that explains why drowning deaths are highest when ice cream consumption is also at its highest.

This actually happened with hormone replacement therapy. Women taking drugs like Premarin appeared to have 50 percent less risk of heart disease, so doctors prescribed it to women by the millions. But, if we dig a little deeper into the data, we find that, indeed, women taking estrogen had 50 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease, but they also had a 50 percent lower risk of dying from accidents and homicide, so it probably wasn’t the drug. The only way to know for sure is to put it to the test in a randomized, clinical trial, where half the women are given the drug and we see what happens. A decade later, such a study was done. Instead of having a 50 percent drop in risk, within a year of being given the hormone pills, heart attack and death rates shot up 50 percent. In retrospect, the lurking variable was likely socioeconomic class. Poor women are less likely to be prescribed hormone replacement therapy and more likely to be murdered and die of heart disease. Because of the lurking variable, a drug we now know to be dangerous had initially appeared to be protective.

Besides lurking variables, there’s also the possibility of reverse causation. Perhaps low vitamin D levels didn’t worsen the cancer. Instead, maybe the cancer worsened the vitamin D levels. This may be unlikely, since tumors don’t appear to directly affect vitamin D levels, but cancer treatment might. Even simple knee surgery can cause vitamin D levels to drop dramatically within hours, thought to be due simply to the inflammatory insult of cutting into someone. So, maybe that could help explain the link between lower vitamin D and lower survival. And, cancer patients may be spending less time running around the beach. So, yes: Higher vitamin D levels are associated with improved survival in colorectal cancer, and the same has been found for breast cancer. In fact, there is about double the risk of breast cancer recurrence and death in women with the lowest vitamin D levels. What’s more, higher vitamin D levels are associated with longer survival with ovarian cancer, as well as having better outcomes for other cancers like lymphoma. But, the bottom-line, as we learned with hormone replacement, is that we have to put it to the test. There weren’t a lot of randomized controlled trials on vitamin D supplements and cancer, however…until now.

We now have a few randomized controlled trials, and vitamin D supplements do indeed appear to reduce the risk of dying from cancer! What dose? Researchers suggest getting blood levels up to at least about 75 nanomoles per liter. These levels are not reached by as many as three-quarters of women with breast cancer nor achieved by a striking 97 percent of colon cancer patients .

Getting up to these kinds of levels—75 or, perhaps even better, 100 nanomoles—might require about 2000 to 4000 IU of vitamin D a day, levels of intake for which there appear to be no credible evidence of harm. Regardless of what the exact level is, the findings of these kinds of studies may have a profound influence on future cancer treatment.

What about just getting sun instead? Be sure to check out my six-part video series:

It’s better, of course, to prevent colon cancer in the first place. See, for example:

For more on that extraordinary story about Premarin and hormone replacement therapy, see How Did Doctors Not Know About the Risks of Hormone Therapy?

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

A highly effective, cheap, easy-to-use, safer treatment for heavy periods

Ginger is most famous for its role in preventing and alleviating nausea and vomiting. There are now so many studies that there are reviews of reviews. Just a half teaspoon of powdered ginger “is associated with a 5-fold likelihood of improvement” in morning sickness in early pregnancy. (See my video Natural Treatments for Morning Sickness for more on this.) Ginger has also been shown to help with motion sickness, improve postoperative nausea and vomiting, prevent antiretroviral-induced nausea and vomiting during HIV treatment, and was said to be a “miracle” against chemotherapy-induced vomiting.

In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial of ginger for breast cancer chemotherapy, chemo-induced vomiting was relieved in all phases—the acute phase within 24 hours of the chemo, two to three days after, and even before chemo sessions with what’s known as anticipatory vomiting. (After a few chemo treatments, the body knows what’s coming and starts throwing up at just the thought of the next session.) Anticipatory nausea can’t seem to be controlled by drugs, even the fancy new ones that can cost 10,000 times more than ginger, which comes in at about two pennies per dose and may work even better in some ways.

Ginger can also help with pain. One-eighth of a teaspoon of powdered ginger, which costs just one penny, was found to work as well as the migraine headache drug Imitrex, without the side effects. (See my video Ginger for Migraines for more.)

Speaking of pain, my video Ginger for Nausea, Menstrual Cramps, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome discusses that it may also be as effective as ibuprofen for alleviating menstrual cramps. Painful periods are exceedingly common and can sometimes cause severe suffering yet have been “virtually ignored” by pain management researchers and practitioners. Four randomized controlled trials, however, have been published on ginger for menstrual pain, and all four showed significant benefit when ginger was taken during the first few days of periods. Effective doses ranged from about a third of a teaspoon a day to a full teaspoon a day, but because they all seemed to work, one might as well start out with the penny-a-day dose.

As a side benefit, ginger can dramatically reduce heavy flow, which is one of the most common gynecological problems for young women. We know there are pro-inflammatory foods that may contribute to heavy menstrual bleeding, so how about trying an anti-inflammatory food like ginger? Heavy menstrual bleeding is defined as more than a third of a cup (80 milliliters), but all the study subjects started out much higher than that. Just an eighth teaspoon of powdered ginger three times a day starting the day before their period cut their flow in half, and it seemed to work better each month they tried it, providing a highly effective, cheap, easy-to-use, safer treatment for menstrual blood loss and pain.

So, ginger works for migraines and menstrual cramps, but just because it may be effective for many types of pain doesn’t mean it’s necessarily efficacious for all pain. For example, what about intestinal cramps? Is ginger effective for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)? The answer is yes, dropping IBS severity by more than 25 percent. But, so did the placebo. So, the real answer is no—it is not effective for the treatment of IBS, yet “[g]inger is one of the most commonly used herbal medicines for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).” Silly people, don’t they know it doesn’t work any better than a sugar pill? Or, from another perspective, are they smart for using something that offers relief 53 percent of the time and doesn’t risk the adverse effects of some of the drugs with which doctors may harm one person for every three they help?

If placebos are so safe and effective, should doctors prescribe them? I discuss the pros and cons in The Lie That Heals: Should Doctors Give Placebos?.

What does work for IBS? See my videos:

What else can women do to make their periods more tolerable? See:

For more on ginger, check out:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: