Q: Can you help settle a pub debate please? Our landlord developed severe hiccups which responded instantly to my preferred remedy – a spoonful of granulated sugar eaten slowly – much to the amazement of all present. But how does it work?
A: Hiccups remain poorly understood but we all get them from time to time with recognised triggers including alcohol, smoking (and nicotine gum), excitement or stress, and eating or drinking too fast.
Hiccups are caused by a sudden contraction of the diaphragm and remedies tend to be aimed at keeping the diaphragm still by holding your breath (which has the added benefit of raising carbon dioxide levels which is thought to help too) or stimulating the phrenic nerve that supplies the muscle (drinking cold water, biting a lemon, and chewing granulated sugar).
The science behind all such approaches is a bit hit and miss but the sugar remedy did make it into the renowned New England Journal of Medicine in a 1971 report that suggested sugar works in around 95% of cases – and immediately in most of them. So it must be true. You owe me a pint.
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