What Causes Hiccups?

iStock/damircudic
iStock/damircudic

The cause of hiccups depends on whom you ask. The ancient Greek physician Galen thought hiccups were violent emotions erupting from the body, while others thought they were a sign of liver inflammation. Today, evidence points to spasms in the diaphragm, the large muscle between the chest and abdomen that aids airflow during breathing. This involuntary contraction can be brought on by a number of things that might irritate the nerves that control the movement of the muscle. A full stomach, heavy boozing, rapid shifts in temperature either inside or outside of the stomach, and certain emotions like shock or excitement are all common culprits.

No matter the cause, the result is the same: The diaphragm spasms and causes us to take a quick breath. The sudden rush of air causes the epiglottis (the flap that protects the space between the vocal cords) to shut and interrupt the breath, which makes the familiar "hic" sound.

WHAT CURES THEM?

The best cure for hiccups also depends on the person you ask. Almost all cures are based on one of two principles: One type works its magic by overwhelming the vagus nerve with another sensation. The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that innervates the stomach and conveys sensory information about the body's organs to the brain. When distracted by overwhelming information of another sort, it basically tells the brain that something more important has come up and the hiccuping should probably be stopped (vagus nerve stimulation is also used to control seizures in epileptics and treat drug-resistant cases of clinical depression). The other method for curing hiccups is to interfere with the breathing, increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood, and causing the body to focus on getting rid of the of the CO2 and not making hiccups.

Swallowing a spoonful of sugar is probably the most commonly prescribed hiccup cure and falls into the first category. A teaspoon of sugar is usually enough to stimulate the vagus nerve and make the body forget all about the hiccups. Even ardent supporters of the sugar cure disagree if the sugar should be taken dry or washed down with water, though.

If this home remedy doesn't work, and your hiccups are both severe and persistent, you may need to bring out the big guns. For chronic cases like this, doctors sometimes use a cocktail of Reglan (a gastrointestinal stimulant) and Thorazine (an anti-psychotic with sedative properties) to quiet things down. In some cases that resist these drugs, Kemstro, an anti-spasmodic, is also used. Other doctors have used vagus nerve stimulators implanted in the upper chest of patients. The pacemaker-like devices send rhythmic bursts of electricity through the vagus nerve to the brain to keep the hiccup cycle in check.

Many people prefer home remedies to battle their hiccups, which may include holding your breath, gargling ice water, or breathing into a paper bag. While the same people will swear by the treatment they've been using all these years, there's no firm scientific consensus that any of them actually work. But if it helps you, isn't that all that matters?

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An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

What Does CPR Stand For?

undefined undefined/iStock via Getty Images
undefined undefined/iStock via Getty Images

The life-saving technique known as CPR stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation. It's a method that allows oxygenated blood to temporarily circulate throughout the body of a person whose heart has stopped. When the heart ceases beating during cardiac arrest, lungs stop receiving oxygen. Without oxygen, nerve cells start to die within minutes; it can take just four to six minutes for an oxygen-deprived person to sustain permanent brain damage or die.

The cardio part of the phrase refers to the heart, the muscular organ that pumps blood through the body's circulatory system. Pulmonary involves the lungs. People take approximately 15 to 20 breaths per minute, and with each breath you take, your lungs fill with oxygen. Resuscitation means bringing something back to consciousness, or from the brink of death.

We have two physicians, Peter Safar and James Elam, to thank for developing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the mid-1950s. In 1957, the American military adopted their CPR method for reviving soldiers. In 1960, the American Heart Association integrated chest compressions, which keep the blood circulating.

Doctors, nurses, dentists, first responders, lifeguards, and some teachers are required to be certified in CPR. But because approximately 85 percent of cardiac arrests occur at home, it’s smart for the average person to know how to perform it, too. In school, you were probably taught CPR by the traditional method of giving 100 to 120 chest compressions per minute (play the Bee Gees’ "Stayin’ Alive" in your head to keep the beat) and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Today, the American Heart Association recommends that average people learn hands-only CPR, which simply involves chest compressions. The organization has found that people can be reluctant to administer mouth-to-mouth CPR in an emergency because they're afraid of doing it wrong or injuring the patient. With hands-only CPR, bystanders feel less anxiety and more willingness to jump in. The AHA also notes that hands-only CPR can be just as effective in saving a life. (And any CPR is better than none at all.)

But how many people actually know CPR?

In 2018, a Cleveland Clinic survey found that 54 percent of Americans said they knew CPR, but only one in six people knew that bystander CPR requires only chest compressions. Only 11 percent of people knew the correct pace for compressions. Again, singing "Stayin' Alive" to yourself is one way to remember the pace—though being a fan of The Office can apparently help, too (as one lucky life-saver recently discovered).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Are Left-Handed People Really More Creative?

Kuzma/iStock via Getty Images
Kuzma/iStock via Getty Images

The left-handed brand has come a long way in the last few decades. The majority of people no longer assume that southpaws are tools of Satan, alight with hellfire. Today’s lefties are surrounded by a far more benevolent glow. We associate left-handedness with intelligence, out-of-the-box thinking, and artistic talent. But are these flattering generalizations backed up by science? Does being left-handed really make you more creative? 

The answer to that is a definitive … maybe.

Scientists have been chipping away at the peculiarities of left-handedness, which occurs in about 10 percent of the population, for a long time. They’ve looked into the purported links between left-handedness and things like mental illness, faulty immune systems, and criminal behavior. They’ve studied whether lefties are better at problem-solving, and if they’re more likely to die young. From all these studies on left-handedness, we can conclude one thing, and one thing alone: science is complicated. 

A handful of studies have found a link between left-handedness and creativity, conferred (some think) by the fact that left-handed folks constantly have to adjust to a right-handed world. Other studies found no link at all. 

Some researchers conclude that lefties are no smarter than righties, while others say that left-handedness comes with a clear intellectual advantage. Is there really a left-handed personality? Are lefties more prone to schizophrenia and learning disabilities? That depends on who you ask. 

But "Are lefties different?" might not even be the right question. Over the last few years, a number of studies have concluded that it’s not which hand is dominant that matters—it’s the degree of dominance. According to researchers, very few people are truly entirely left- or right-handed; it’s more of a spectrum. We use our left hands for some things and our right hands for other tasks. 

These experiments have found that people toward the middle of the spectrum are more flexible thinkers. They seem to be more empathetic and better able to view things from other people’s perspectives. When considering the risks and benefits of any given decision, inconsistent-handed people (as researchers call them) are more likely to focus on the risks, whereas people at the outer edges of the handedness spectrum pay more attention to potential benefits. They may even sleep differently. It seems we’ve been aiming our stereotypes a little too far to the left.

But who knows? This is ever-changing, constantly evolving science. If you’re a lefty who enjoys feeling superior, we’re not going to tell you to tone it down. For all we know, you could be right.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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