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A man who hiccupped his entire life

By Jack MutindaPublished 4 months ago 5 min read
Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

Imagine having bouts of hiccups that last for 10 to 20 minutes every couple of months and thinking it's horrible. Now, picture hiccuping continuously for 68 years. That was the reality for a man named Charles Osborne, who developed a unique way of talking to hide the sound of his endless hiccups. Poor guy had been hiccuping non-stop since June 13, 1922, for over 68 years.

Osborne's hiccups began after a small accident on a farm in Nebraska. He fell over, but didn't feel anything strange until he started hiccuping uncontrollably. Doctors believe that the accident might have damaged a small part of his brain responsible for stopping the hiccup reflex. There are different theories about the cause, with some suggesting that he may have hurt his ribs, affecting his diaphragm muscle, while others think he may have hit his head and had a stroke. Regardless of the cause, he was stuck with the hiccups for the rest of his life.

Can you imagine experiencing 20 to 40 diaphragm spasms per minute for that long? By the time Osborne finally stopped hiccuping, he had likely hiccuped about 430 million times in total over his 97-year-long life.

His condition was so severe that he sought help from numerous doctors, often traveling long distances, but nobody could find a solution. One doctor even tried a mix of carbon monoxide and oxygen, which provided temporary relief, but it turned out to be a dangerous solution. Instead, Osborne had to develop a special breathing technique to minimize the hiccup sounds. He would take a breath between hiccups and flex his chest a few times per minute to suppress the noise. Although it was still evident that he was hiccuping due to the jerking movements, at least it wasn't as loud.

Osborne had already been hiccuping for 56 years when he gained fame by giving an interview in 1978. He expressed his willingness to do anything to get rid of the hiccups and admitted that he couldn't even imagine what life would be like without them. He constantly experienced soreness from the jerking and spasming.

After speaking up, he received a lot of media attention. He was listed in the Guinness World Records and appeared on TV shows like The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. People from all over the country sent him letters with suggestions for curing his hiccups, but unfortunately, none of them provided a lasting solution.

Despite his ordeal, Charles Osborne managed to live a relatively normal life. He was known as a happy-go-lucky guy who loved cracking jokes and didn't let his condition define him. He married twice, had eight children, and earned a living by selling farm machinery and auctioning off livestock.

In 1990, for reasons that remain a mystery, Osborne's hiccups suddenly stopped after over six decades. Sadly, he passed away just a year later. However, it's safe to assume that his last months were filled with happiness, finally free from the burden of hiccups.

Even with the medical advancements made since Osborne's time, there is still no surefire way to cure prolonged hiccups. Hiccups remain a mysterious phenomenon that has been present since the earliest existence of mammals. Scientists are gradually unraveling the reasons behind their occurrence and seeking effective remedies.

Hiccups are a reflex action, similar to the knee-jerk reflex when a doctor taps your knee with a hammer. This reflex is found in many mammals, including humans. When you hiccup, a nerve signal travels from your diaphragm to your brain and back again, causing your diaphragm to contract and your lungs to expand. However, in the middle of the inhale, a reflex causes your epiglottis, a flap of tissue at the top of your throat, to suddenly snap shut, creating the characteristic "hic" sound. This cycle continues until the reflex is interrupted, such as by holding your breath or drinking water.

Hiccups occur due to the phrenic nerve, which runs from the chest to the diaphragm. It is believed to have evolved from a shorter nerve found in the ancestors of mammals that had gills. This reflex may have been useful for amphibians that lived both underwater with gills and on land with lungs. The closure of the epiglottis prevented water from entering their lungs. However, as humans no longer live underwater and lack gills, the purpose of hiccups in our lives remains uncertain.

There are some potential benefits associated with hiccups. For example, babies tend to hiccup more frequently than adults, especially while suckling milk. As babies drink and swallow air, hiccups may help clear the air from their stomachs. This reflex may serve as a self-initiated burp. Additionally, even fetuses as young as 10 weeks old have been observed hiccuping. This process might aid in training their developing brains to understand their internal body, particularly the location of the diaphragm and the control of breathing.

Approximately 4,000 people in the United States seek medical attention for hiccups each year. While most hiccups resolve on their own within two days, prolonged or intractable hiccups could indicate an underlying problem, such as a brain tumor. Medical treatments for hiccups aim to relax the muscles and nerves that may cause diaphragm spasms, but there is limited clear evidence to recommend a specific treatment.

One Japanese research group has discovered a new method of curing hiccups, which involves breathing in high concentrations of CO2. This tricks the brain into perceiving a life-threatening emergency, causing it to temporarily forget about the hiccups. However, if traveling to Japan for this treatment is not an option, you can try traditional remedies that have been proven to work, such as drinking a whole glass of water in one gulp, standing on your head, or experiencing a moment of intense fear. These methods work by interrupting the reflex arc, distracting the nerves and muscles involved in hiccuping.


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