A straw designed to stop hiccupping fits has been reported as successful in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open. Not only did most people in the experiment think the straw stopped their hiccups, but it easily outperformed traditional methods, although the study lacked some features associated with high standard medical trials.
For most people, hiccups are a childhood annoyance or a metaphorical minor problem, but for an unfortunate few they can persist long enough to seriously undermine their quality of life. The fact “What causes hiccups?” was Americans’ most searched medical question in 2017 is some indication of how widespread the problem can be.
Frustrated by the failure of traditional approaches, like drinking from the far side of the glass or breathing techniques, Dr Ari Seifi of the University of Texas came up with the idea of a straw that would interrupt bouts of hiccups. Known as forced inspiratory suction and swallow tool (FISST), but marketed as HiccAway, the straw requires more suction power than conventional straws to draw up liquid.
FISST’s makers claim the act of drinking through the straw “Lowers the diaphragm while opening first, and then closing the epiglottis (the leaf-shaped flap in the throat that keeps food out of the windpipe). Doing so stimulates at the same time the ‘Phrenic’ and ‘Vagus’ nerves, allowing the brain to ‘reset’ and stop the hiccups.” (We’re not sure why they have put the nerves’ names in quotation marks).
People have been claiming hiccup cures since the dawn of time, however. Since most hiccups go away naturally, it’s a condition particularly suited to offering the appearance of solving the problem without actually doing anything, like common cold remedies.
Dr James Alvarez of the University of Texas conducted a study of 249 volunteers who used the straw and reported their experiences.
According to the paper, nearly 92 percent of participants reported HiccAway stopped their hiccups. On a scale of subjective effectiveness, FISST scored 4.58 out of five. An impressive 90 percent rated it better than home remedies.
Most participants experienced only occasional bouts of hiccups, but 11 reported them daily, with another 53 suffering weekly. Frequent sufferers reported success rates with HiccAway almost as high as those more seldom affected. A few unfortunate individuals who suffered from bursts lasting more than 48 hours gave lower scores but were still generally impressed.
However, hiccups are the sort of problem where the placebo effect is particularly likely to play a role. Many people swear by “cures” that work for few others. It’s not clear if it would be possible to give some subjects a modified, non-working, version of the straw for the purpose of conducting double-blinded trials, but that certainly wasn’t done in this case. The fact most of the authors are based at the same university as the inventor may also raise eyebrows.
Very, very occasionally persistent hiccups are a sign of something much more serious. HiccAway may act as a screening method, driving patients who fail to respond to investigate more deeply.