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There are cases of individuals having the hiccups for more than 50 years, and the hiccups themselves don’t seem to have killed them. However, they are a sign that something else—that could potentially be fatal—may be the cause of the hiccups.
If you’re a Grey’s Anatomy fan (like me) you probably have extreme feelings about one particular episode. In this episode, Meredith Grey, the protagonist’s stepmother, seemingly dies from a case of the hiccups.
Like many people who watched the show, this episode struck me as having a weird premise. After all, if we were to list all the things in the world that could probably kill us, hiccups would probably not even make the list.
Hiccups are common. If you’ve ever gulped down beer too quickly or binged on way too much food in a single sitting, chances are that you’ve had the hiccups. In fact, people even end up hiccuping when they’re stressed!
Given how common and harmless hiccups generally are, it’s pretty jarring to think that hiccups might actually be more dangerous than we think.
So, can hiccups actually kill you?
Before we get into the intricacies, let’s first find out what hiccups actually are.
What Are Hiccups?
Did you know that the hiccup is actually a two-step process? When we have a hiccup, the diaphragm first contracts and pulls itself downward. These contractions (or spasms) are involuntary and occur in the time that passes between two consecutive breaths.
Each spasm is followed by a constriction of the vocal cords. This two-step process essentially “creates” a hiccup. In fact, the second step is what causes the characteristic and high-pitched “hic” sound.
All of this happens in the blink of an eye. For most people, hiccups don’t last more than a few seconds, or worse, a few minutes. However, some people do suffer from prolonged or chronic hiccups.
What Qualifies As Chronic Hiccups?
While most of us can’t imagine hiccuping for more than a few minutes, chronic hiccups are real. A hiccuping bout that lasts more than 2 days qualifies as “chronic hiccups”. There’s even a classification for hiccups that last for over a month. If an episode of the hiccups stretches well beyond a month, at that point they’re called “intractable hiccups”.
Believe it or not, the longest case of hiccups ever recorded went on for 68 years. Charles Osbourne, a man born in 1893, suffered through hiccups for almost seven whole decades.
According to WebMD, chronic (specifically intractable) hiccups afflict every 1 in 100,000 individuals.
Chronic hiccups take a large toll on the body. It’s extremely exhausting and disruptive to everyday life events. Camielle Rizzo, a doctor who works at Middlesex Hospital, had the following to say to Smithsonian magazine regarding the side effects of intractable or chronic hiccups, “Insomnia from having hiccups all night can be incredibly distressing, and then—not surprisingly—if you haven’t slept for two to three weeks, you can become depressed and anxious. ”
Can Hiccups Kill You?
It doesn’t seem so. There is no direct evidence that too many hiccups have ever killed someone.
While hiccups alone don’t cause death, chronic hiccups can still significantly drag down an individual’s quality of life. Intractable hiccups often trigger dangerous side effects, such as an irregular heartbeat.
Additionally, hiccups can manifest as signs of a much larger or unresolved underlying condition, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (or GORD).
This is the same thing that happened to Susan, Meredith’s stepmother on Grey’s. In her case, her GORD had silently advanced to the point where she began hiccuping constantly as a side effect.
Similarly, hiccups have also been considered indicators of a stroke. This is basically what happened to Charles Osborne in 1922. Osborne fell over, while trying to pick up a hog, and suffered a stroke. After this incident, Osborne hiccupped pretty much non-stop until 1990.
A doctor, Ali Seifi, told the Smithsonian magazine that this stroke may have contributed to Osborne’s sudden development of intractable hiccups.
Medical drama plots aren’t as serious and genuine as chronic hiccups, but they are fun to break down and dissect.
In Grey’s Anatomy, when Meredith’s stepmother presents with a bad case of hiccups, the doctors in the hospital narrow it down to a horrendous instance of acid reflux or gastro‐oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). In this case, the GORD was so advanced that it could only be resolved or treated by surgery—a procedure known as endoscopic gastroplication. From that point onwards, an entire hour of television magic concludes with Meredith’s mother being wheeled away to surgery. Long story short… she doesn’t make it.
The show was on the right path in terms of hiccups manifesting as a symptom of an extreme case of GORD, which can persist into chronic hiccups if the underlying disease is not addressed.
Similarly, there are many other health conditions that hiccups act as precursors to. For example, hiccups can also arise in conjunction with sharp chest pains, numbness all over your body, and blurry vision; these hiccups are likely manifestations of a stroke.
So, here’s the gist. While hiccups themselves did not kill Susan Grey, we shouldn’t ever dismiss them completely!
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References (click to expand)
- You Asked: What are my hiccups telling me? – Vital Record. The Texas A&M Health Science Center
- The Curious Case of Charles Osborne, Who Hiccupped for 68 …. Smithsonian
- Hiccups – NHS. The National Health Service
- Hiccups – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic. The Mayo Clinic
- Hiccups: Causes & Treatment – Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic
- What Are Intractable Hiccups? – WebMD. WebMD
- Fisher, M. J., & Mittal, R. K. (1989, August). Hiccups and gastroesophageal reflux: Cause and effect?. Digestive Diseases and Sciences. Springer Science and Business Media LLC.
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