This is an ode to the diaphragm.
And by diaphragm I mean your thoracic diaphragm, not your sexy-times diaphragm, which really needs to be renamed to something less confusing and boring. Why couldn’t it be more like “douche bag” –hours of fun!
Anyway, what the hell is the thoracic diaphragm? I just remember my choir teacher saying to me “use your diaphragm” when I was 8 and me trying to figure out how I could bend or squint my eyes to make it look like I was using my whatever that is.
The diaphragm is a dome shaped, flat muscle that separates your thorax (the part of you from below the neck to the bottom of your lungs) from your abdomen (the part of you from below your lungs to your junk). Which is easier to think about when you look at ants, like most things:
Turns out lungs don’t do jack except discriminate against carbon dioxide and get cancer. Behind every great lung there is a great diaphragm.
How it works: So, imagine four people standing in a rectangle, each holding the corner of a sheet high above their head. Sheet = diaphragm. When they lower their arms the sheet moves down. The diaphragm stretches downward in your torso to create a vacuum which draws air into your lungs. If all the people lift the sheet up again, it’s like the diaphragm stretching upward to push the air out.
Mammals depend on this completely. No diaphragm, no air. Except cows for some reason, who don’t actually need one to breathe as long as they don’t do strenuous exercise, which is freakish and amazing and why they are worshiped in India. So unless you’re a cow, you can tell your choir teacher to suck it because you ARE using your diaphragm, you couldn’t not.
The diaphragm also happens to be the cause of other phenomenons that I never quite understood. Like “getting the wind knocked out of you,” which I admit is a cooler and more succinct phrase than any of the following:
I once slipped on wet stairs and my back slammed right onto the edge of the middle stair. In my attempt to sever my thoracic cavity from my abdominal one, my diaphragm, let us say, protested. Shriveled up and contracted like a terrified anemone. Due to stress and sudden pressure change, I was forced to exhale so hard my lungs collapsed.
Lungs are not like bags or balloons, they’re like sponges, consisting of little sacs called alveoli that keep mostly inflated even when you exhale. ..Except when you squeeze the life out of them.
Lungs are a wet flesh, so when collapsed, all the sides of the sacs stick together and you have to breathe in a great deal to ungoo and reinflate them. But in my situation I couldn’t breathe in because I’d basically taken a baseball bat to my inner vacuum. By some miracle we live through this.
The first time it happened I was a kid and I was so glad that someone said “it’s okay, you just got the wind knocked out of you.” They recognized my condition as normal instead of the panic-ridden death scene it felt like. As opposed to my least favorite piece of advice, “it’s okay, just breathe.”
Oh really? I’m dying horribly, in public, my body so desperate for air it’s contorting in ways only a salted slug can imagine, involuntarily emitting a deeply unsettling, inhuman moan-cry of a just castrated sheep and you’re telling me to just breathe?
Hiccups. Also a diaphragm thing. It likes to spasm for a variety of reasons, including eating, drinking, temperature change, or emotional change. You gotta love lists like this, where the scientists clearly don’t really know so they just list anything that can happen to a torso. “Well, it’s basically these specifically vague things that may or may not cause hiccups.” Anyway, the point is, it spasms, causing us to gasp suddenly.
The sound we make is caused by a flap in our throat called the epiglottis (shout out to that operatic word). Its job is to designate which things go down which tube. Water and food to the stomach, air to the lungs. When your diaphragm spasms, your epiglottis panics and shuts off the flow of air to your lungs, making the characteristic “hic” sound.
The only problem is when you can’t stop hiccuping. For days on end. Apparently this happens, and can be caused by the following horrendous illnesses (from howstuffworks.com):
“hernia – cancer – fear – fever – foreign body in the ear – glaucoma – heart attack – kidney failure – stroke…” etc
I love that “foreign body in the ear” is on this otherwise terrifying list. CANCER. FEAR. Foreign body in the Ear! Rhyming its whimsical way out of all the grim reaper options whose side effect of hiccups are really the least of your problems.
Death, Q-tips, and death. Yay diaphragm!