Hiccups Are The DEVIL When You Have Costochondritis

I will die on this hill, alright? There is absolutely nothing in this world worse than hiccups with costochondritis. I’m sure that sounds completely bizarre to most of you reading this, but I can guarantee that anyone else out there with costochondritis will know exactly what I’m talking about.

Hiccups are the devil. Here’s why.

Costochondritis is a nasty pain condition caused by inflammation in the cartilage in the ribcage. In particular, it affects the costochondral joints, which are the ones right at the top of your ribcage, where your ribs join your sternum. The result of the inflammation is bad pain, which can range from affecting only one rib, to all of them, and the pain can even spread around to your back and shoulders.

The NHS page will tell you that costochondritis is a short-term condition that usually resolves by itself within 6 months to a year. However, this is not always the case, and especially not when you have other underlying health conditions. I was diagnosed with costochondritis in 2014 and I can guarantee that is still very present today in 2020, and I actually suspect that I’ve had it since much earlier, when I was a teenager in 2009-2010. I was told by my ME specialist that it’s very common in ME and fibromyalgia, and yet, strangely, I don’t see it talked about that much.

It’s a very frightening pain to have when you don’t know what’s causing it. For me, the pain can feel crushing right in the centre of my chest, or it can feel like stabbing through my ribs, or it can be a dull ache that spreads across my torso. I manage the pain through NSAIDs and my other painkillers, but the pain is never completely gone. Even the slightest touch to my chest is agony. 

I have to be careful about which clothes I wear, and I can’t wear a bra or a binder or anything remotely constricting around my chest at all (much to my frustration, because dysphoria sucks).

It’s easy to think that you’re having a heart attack the first time you have this pain. I have been kept in A&E for hours longer than I needed to be because they were worried about my chest pain, even when I knew it was caused by costochondritis and told them as much. The good news is that costochondritis is not in any way permanently damaging: it doesn’t affect your heart or your lungs or any other important organs. It’s just very, very uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable.

So. Someone with costochondritis – someone like me – is in constant pain in their chest. Nothing really makes it better. I find deep heat and hot water bottles helpful to ease some of the pain, but basically, when an attack happens, it’s completely debilitating. I can’t sit up in bed because of the weight pressing on my chest, and it can very easily set my asthma off because of the pain from taking even the smallest breath. Breathing in general makes my chest feel like it’s on fire, but you can’t exactly just stop breathing, can you?

On the whole, when I have a costo flare, I retire to my bed and make a pillow fort out of blankets and my favourite cushions, get myself as comfortable as possible with my hot water bottles, and marathon netflix until it eases enough for me to go about my daily business again. This can take anything from hours to weeks (I think my longest flare was six weeks, when I couldn’t get out of bed and missed many hours of lectures at my university. My friends didn’t see me for two months). But, for the majority of the time, I’m able to go about my day as long as I don’t bend over, lift my arms, or try and carry anything heavy.

But then, it happens. The worst thing in the universe, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.

The Hiccups.

Hiccups can descend at any time. They sneak up on you, in that creepy, insidious way they have, with no prior warning and no time to prepare. Like killer ninjas, they can come on suddenly and BAM, you’re incapacitated and there’s nothing you can do to predict it.

Why are hiccups so bad, though? I’m sure all you healthy people are scratching your heads, wondering why on earth I’m making such a big deal about something that, for most people, is nothing more than a minor irritation.

Not for us, my friend. Not for us.

For those of us with costochondritis (or I suppose any other pain condition that affects your chest), hiccups are the worst. They’re excruciating. To explain why, I’ll go into the mechanics of hiccuping a little bit, but here’s a disclaimer that I’m not medically trained so this is just my understanding of how it all works.

Hiccups are, essentially, an abnormal movement of the diaphragm. When you hiccup, your diaphragm jumps, lifting the ribcage and creating the annoying sound that bothers you and, probably, everyone around you. No one quite knows why the phenomenon happens, or how to stop it, though there are all sorts of old wives’ tales out there for different ways to get rid of them. Drinking water continuously without breathing until they stop is my personal favourite.

So, think about it. Your ribcage jumping up involuntarily is no problem for healthy people, but when you have inflamed cartilage, even the slightest twitch of your ribs is excruciating. The sort of violent, unstoppable movement involved with a hiccup? It’s horrendous.

The best way I can describe the pain is like someone jabbing you repeatedly in the centre of your chest with a cauterised iron rod. It feels like being branded. Repeatedly. In exactly the same place. The ache takes hours to fade away again after a bout of hiccups, and the longer it goes on, the more pain I am subjected to and the longer it will take for me to recover. And there’s no guaranteed way to stop it.

I have tried all the old wives’ tales I mentioned above. Holding my nose, counting to ten, being startled (my friends have shouted BOO at me more times than I can count), putting my fingers in my ears and singing, tickling the roof of my mouth with my tongue – nothing works. The best I can do is grab the nearest bottle of water and drink until they go away without taking a breath, but this causes problems of its own – I find swallowing difficult even with a straw, and cold drinks often aggravate the pain in my chest.

Still, it’s the best method I have, so I end up chugging water until the hiccups eventually go away. Then I am left with a sore stomach, an aching chest, a painful throat, and flat-out exhausted. It’s ridiculous that a small bout of hiccups can knock me so much, but I’m not even exaggerating when I say I have to rest at least forty minutes after hiccups.

It’s beyond frustrating. I find it ridiculous. But what can I do? You can’t just avoid hiccups, and actually my difficulties with swallowing mean I often get more hiccups than the average person would.

It’s a cruel, cruel world.

So, all you healthy people out there – whenever you get a bout of hiccups, think of those of us with horrendous pain every time, and be thankful that yours will just be a bit of an annoyance for a while. We wish we were like you. Trust me.