Tumor-Induced Hiccups Rob Man of Job, Music

Documentary follows man whose hiccups robbed him of job, music, girlfriend.

January 12, 2010, 4:59 PM

Jan. 13, 2010— -- For more than four years, Chris Sands was crippled by the debilitating pain of recurring hiccups, which at their worst he suffered every two seconds over a 14-hour stretch.

"It has ruined my life pretty much," said the 26-year-old from Timberland in Lincolnshire, England, who still lives at home, can't drive and has no job or girlfriend.

"When it got to the point where it was really bad, my diaphragm would go into spasms and I would stop breathing and wake up on the floor," he told ABCNews.com.

Sands tried everything to get rid of his hiccups: herbal drinks from Malaysia, hypnotherapy, acupuncture, pickled plums, mustard, vinegar and every imaginable variation of drinking a glass of water.

But after an onslaught of media attention from the United States to Japan, Sands finally got a diagnosis -- a tumor in his brain stem was causing the hiccups.

"It totally knocked my socks off," said Sands, whose medical journey is the subject of a documentary, "The Man Who Wouldn't Stop Hiccupping," which aired Tuesday night on Britain's BBC One.

"It's lucky there was a chair under me because I almost fell off," he told ABCNews.com. "I burst into tears and thought I was going to die."

Produced by Mentorn Media, the documentary follows Sands from just after his hiccups started "out of the blue, for no reason" in September 2006 until after his life-saving surgery in September 2009.

"The scene that really hit home was when Chris was diagnosed with a brain tumor," said Alex Hudson, a BBC reporter who previewed the documentary.

"What had started as a light-hearted condition -- Chris himself had said that it is a 'funny' illness to those around him -- had turned into something that was threatening his life," Hudson said.

"Watching a predominantly happy and positive man just break down was not comfortable to watch," Hudson told ABCNews.com.

"I had a sneaky peaky of the film and it's fantastic, really good," said Sands from London, where he appeared on BBC's "Breakfast Show" today. "But there are points that bring me to tears."

Living With Hiccups Was Incapacitating

Beyond the news that he might die, Sands, who plays rhythm guitar and sings backup vocals for a band, Ebullient, said lack of sleep and "day to day living" was the hardest part.

"I was desperate to play piano or guitar," he said. "I have all this music in my head all the time but I wasn't able to play it. I would start to play, then the hiccups would start up and I would vomit. It was so disheartening not to do what I love."

Ordinary hiccups are caused by eating too quickly, alcohol, stress or drinking carbonated beverages. But stomach irritation, gastroesophageal reflux disease and cardiac pacemakers can be responsible for chronic hiccups.

A hiccup begins with a sudden involuntary spasm of the diaphragm resulting in a quick inhalation; the characteristic hiccup sound comes from the sudden closure of vocal chords.

The most dramatic documented case of chronic hiccups was that of Charles Osborne of Iowa, who hiccupped for 68 years -- almost 40 a minute -- from 1922 until they mysteriously stopped in 1990. It is estimated that he hiccupped 430 million times.

For a time, Sands' hiccups went away, but then returned in February 2007 and he embarked on a worldwide search for answers.

Doctors found a congenital condition in the valve that connected Sands' esophagus to his stomach that gave him frequent heartburn and vomiting, but surgery to correct that didn't help the hiccups.

"I'm curled up in a ball on the floor, writhing around in pain, drinking water," he said.

After television appearances in both Britain and Japan, a "crazy" Japanese doctor offered to help find a cure by offering to stick a giant needle from his neck into his diaphragm, dodging his rib cage and arteries.

Sands declined, but by summer 2009, Sands was offered an all-expense paid trip to Japan as part of a documentary on his condition. There, a hiccup specialist ordered an MRI, which revealed the tumor.

Brain Tumor Removed, Hiccups Subsided

In September 2009, doctors removed two thirds of the tumor from Sands' brain stem and since then, the hiccups have subsided.

Sands' medical case is "extremely rare," according to Dr. Martin Makary, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Surgical Outcomes Research in Baltimore.

"Most of the time, the brain tumor causes other problems or there are other problems and hiccups together," he told ABCNews.com. "He had only hiccups.

"Hiccups are frustrating for doctors because we don't have much to offer patients," Makary said. "There are a couple of home remedies, but nothing really works."

Luckily, Sands' tumor was located in the brain stem, where surgeons can more easily operate away from the major veins.

"The brain stem is a great location to remove tumors without a lot of peripheral damage, so [surgery] can be done with a very clean cut," Makary said.

Still, there were dangers.

Sands said his surgeon was "eccentric and confident in his ability, and so I trusted him."

"He said, 'There is no margin for error and if I make a mistake you are dead. Even if I don't make a mistake you could end up with a speech impediment or in a wheelchair for awhile,'" Sands said.

But without surgery, Sands said he would have been "dead within two years."

Today, Sands has a six-inch scar down the back of his neck and has general weakness on his left side that continues to improve. British doctors say it will take 18 months for him to recover fully.

He said he hopes to find a job so he can find his own place and will return to his band when he is stronger.

His prognosis is good and so are his spirits.

"I am happy and hiccup- and tumor-free," Sands said. "And I got to go to Tokyo twice."

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