Priceonomics

In the early 1980s, there was an obscure cartoon character by the name of Mr. Hiccup. A little, greenish-tinted man who wore a tie and a fedora, Mr. Hiccup had a “normal life, a normal job, and a normal home,” yet endured a “not-so-normal” dilemma: despite his sincerest efforts over the course of 39 episodes, he couldn’t stop hiccuping.

While Mr. Hiccup was humorous and lighthearted, the fictional character’s plight is actually a very real problem: at any given time, physicians estimate that some 1,000 people in the United States suffer the intolerable hell that is chronic hiccups.

Known medically as “synchronous diaphragmatic flutter,” hiccups are involuntary spasmodic contractions that occur in the diaphragm, resulting in rapid, successive closure of the vocal chords. Typically triggered by increased abdominal pressure, hiccups are an affliction we’ve all dealt with in our lives but the vast majority of the time, they go away naturally after an hour or two. When hiccups last longer than a few days, they are deemed to be “persistent;” any bout that lingers beyond a month is “chronic.” There is no medically prescribed cure.

The longest recorded case in medical history can be credited to one Charles Osborne, a farmer who continuously hiccuped for 68 years.

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Born on an Iowa farm in 1893, Osborne spent his youth, and most of his early adult years, working as a farmhand on his father’s property. It was here, on a fateful spring afternoon in 1922, that his life took a turn for the worse.

"I was hanging a 350-pound hog for butchering," he recalled in an interview, years later. "I picked it up and then I fell down. I felt nothing, but the doctor said later that I busted a blood vessel the size of a pin in my brain."

When Osborne came to, he had a bad case of the hiccups, and no homespun remedy seemed to relieve him. Like Mr. Hiccup, he tried all the old tricks  drinking a glass of water while biting a pencil, choking down a spoonful of sugar, breathing into a paper bag  but his diaphragm contractions persisted at a constant rate. Days turned to weeks, and weeks to months; eventually, the farmer returned to work. 

For the next 68 years, Osborne experienced hiccups continuously at a rate of one every three seconds during waking hours; physicians who’ve studied his case have estimated that he hiccupped 24,000 times per day, or some 595,680,000 times over his lifetime.

For the first few years, Osborne sought out medical advice, sometimes, traveling as far as Alaska to meet with physicians. This quickly became both too expensive and too time consuming, and after hundreds of “potential cures” fell through, he accepted the hiccups as an unwelcome addition to his everyday life. In his quest, Osbourne managed to achieve a certain strain of fame: he made an appearance on Ripley's Believe It or Not radio program, was interviewed by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, and secured a spot in The Guinness Book of World Records for “longest bout of hiccups.”

According to a 1982 People Magazine profile, thousands of listeners, viewers, and readers, each with his or her own “cure all,” reacher out to Osborne:

“He's received nearly 4,000 letters offering sympathy and home remedies over the years, but none of them — from massaging the fingers to pressing the right side of the chin — has worked. Nowadays he dismisses each suggestion with a curt ‘Tried that.’” 

Osborne’s only fleeting moment of solace came in the late 1970s, when an Illinois specialist determined that he’d  “destroyed a small area in the brain stem, inhibiting the hiccup response." He was put on an experimental hormone drug which rid him of hiccups for 36 hours, but after experiencing some equally intolerable side effects, he declined further treatment.

Gradually, he learned to quell the noise of his hiccups by integrating breathing techniques into his daily routine; though the hiccups subsided when he was asleep, they immediately resumed when he opened his eyes each morning. Solid foods were impossible for Osborne to consume, and he’d blend his meals into a liquid form to prevent choking.

Despite these inconveniences, Osbourne lived what he deemed to be a relatively “normal” life. He continued working with pigs for many years first as a hog auctioneer, and later as a farm machinery salesman. Hiccups also did not detract from the 5’4”, 145-pound man’s his ability to woo lovers: between burps, he married twice and father eight children.

Mysteriously, Osborne’s hiccups completely stopped in 1990 but a year later, at the seasoned age of 97, he passed away due to natural causes.

If Mr. Hiccup were real, he wouldn't look nearly so jolly; full episode here

In the years since Osborne passed away, several other cases of chronic hiccups have surfaced in the media, notably the ordeal of Englishman, Christopher Sands, in 2006. For more than three years, Sands, a musician and vocalist, experienced a continuous onslaught of hiccups so bad that he’d often pass out from a lack of oxygen to the brain. He was only cured when a team of doctors found and removed the culprit: a tumor in his brain stem. 

Osborne and Sands were, in actuality, fortunate: chronic hiccups have, in some documented cases, led to severe weight loss, and death due to exhaustion.

Despite medical advancements, writes the Dartmouth Journal of Science, “hiccupping is a minimally studied subject, [and] there are only speculations as to why we hiccup at all.” The only medically documented solution for chronic cases is a risky surgery to sever the nerves that control the diaphragm, but this almost always results in severely impaired breathing. For those unfortunate souls who share Osborne’s experience, there is little hope of a 100% recovery.

While everyone has his or her own theory about how to quell the hiccups, these “cures” are ultimately coincidental, says Dr. Terence Anthoney, the man who treated Osborne more than 40 years ago.

“Holding one's breath is strictly minor league,” he writes. "Most cures are cures simply because the person's hiccup clock is over."

This post was written by Zachary Crockett (you can follow him on Twitter here).

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