Ig Nobel prizes hail 'digital rectal massage'

"I have always hoped to win a real Nobel prize for medicine," Francis Fesmire of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine told New Scientist. Nevertheless, he settled for the Ig Nobel prize in medicine instead, handed out along with nine other Ig Nobel prizes in a Thursday evening ceremony at Harvard University in Massachusetts, US.

It might be some consolation to note that a real Nobel prize winner was pushing a broom on stage to sweep away the paper airplanes traditionally thrown by the audience. The Annals of Improbable Research, which produces the Ig Nobel ceremony, points out that the 10 years that Harvard physicist Roy Glauber has spent sweeping the stage did not affect his selection as a physics laureate in 2005.

Fesmire, a specialist in emergency medicine and cardiology, probably did not have a real Nobel in mind when he published "Termination of intractable hiccups with digital rectal massage" in Annals of Emergency Medicine (vol 17, p 872). He was, it transpires, attempting to help a man who walked into the emergency room after hiccuping for 72 hours at up to 30 times a minute.

Runaway electrical impulses in the vagus nerve cause intractable hiccups, so Fesmire attempted to block them by stimulating the nerve. Gagging, tongue pulling, sinus massage and pressing the eyeball to stimulate the vagus all failed to stop the hiccups. Then he remembered reading about a case in which digital rectal massage – inserting a finger into a patient’s anus – had slowed a racing heartbeat, an effect similar to runaway hiccups.

"It worked, and the rest is history," he says. He has not needed to go that far again for other patients, but Majed Odeh of Bnai Zion Medical Center in Haifa, Israel, did a few years later and wrote a paper with the same title that earned him a share of the Ig Nobel.

However, Fesmire will not be trying it again. In researching his Ig Nobel acceptance speech, he told New Scientist that he found a treatment sure to be more popular with hiccup patients. "An orgasm results in incredible stimulation of the vagus nerve. From now on, I will be recommending sex – culminating with orgasm – as the cure-all for intractable hiccups."