The struggle is real: I cannot burp

04/23/2016 6:00 AM |

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It’s something you’re not supposed to do in polite company after a meal, but it’s actually something I can’t do at all.

Yes, it’s true. To my great embarrassment, I’m incapable of burping. But — as I’ve recently learned — I’m not the only one.

This has to be a joke, right? I mean, how can anyone not know how to do something we all learn by the time we’re five? But, for whatever reason, I can’t summon up the powerful belches beloved by middle-schoolers and frat boys alike.

I can’t even do it by accident. Instead, I get a gurgling croak or an awful cough that makes my co-workers and loved ones jump.

When I finally revealed this strange circumstance to my parents and friends, their reaction could be best described as bemused, stifled laughter. Just burp, they said. A host of doctors have examined me and, after a plethora of tests, have declared, “Eh. It’s probably anxiety.”

In truth, the only thing making me anxious was their insistence that I had anxiety.

Imagine my shock — and frankly, delight — when I found this strange affliction isn’t limited to me.

Apparently, there is a thriving online community of people — numbering more than 1,700 — who lack this seemingly obvious ability. On the online forum site reddit.com, an entire group exists called “No Burp: The Struggle is Real.” (No, I’m not kidding).

For the first time, I didn’t feel like I was making it up. Here were hundreds of people describing exactly what I go through. Like me, they hate carbonated beverages and beer. I was among friends who were just as shocked to find others who couldn’t burp.

“Oh my God, I can’t believe I found this community,” one user declared. Another said they were “amazed that I found this.” And it’s not just some weirdos on an obscure internet forum. Even Buzzfeed published a gif-laden story called “19 Struggles Of Being A Person Who Can’t Burp.”

I also learned that I have it easy. What’s a weird quirk for me is actually painful for others. One user described debilitating pain. Others have terrible heartburn. Who knew not burping could be so bad for you?

Turns out my problem may be an anatomical anomaly. Shockingly, however, research into the inability to burp is a bit lacking.

The condition itself has been barely documented in medical papers. Only one report described the anomaly and coined a term for the as-yet-undefined condition: Dysfunction of the Belch Reflex.

In a paper published in 1987, Dr. Peter Kahrilas, then a research fellow, and two other doctors noted the case of a 25-year-old woman who suffered “incapacitating chest pain” after being unable to burp. They discovered that air was becoming trapped in the woman’s esophagus when the upper esophageal sphincter — which normally opens up to let out burps — failed to relax.

“It’s the only paper that I’ve ever written about it.,” Dr. Kahrilas, now a former division chief of gastroenterological medicine, told me. The doctor specializes in rare esophageal disorders, but even then, this condition is unique.

“Failure of the belch reflex is pretty unusual,” he said. “It’s not something I got involved in. It’s just something Paul Hogan, the other author, and I observed … I burp just fine.”

Dr. Kahrilas said he still gets emails or phone calls from people across the country every year who have discovered his paper and seek his help. When I explained that I was one of those weirdos, Dr. Kahrilas laughed.

“It’s quite strange really,” he said. “Every now and then one of these people comes my way … I keep a file of all the correspondences.”

So there must be an easy medicinal fix for this, right? Nope, the doctor said. In truth, the dysfunction is not life-threatening; it’s really just annoying.

However, Dr. Kahrilas said there was a man years ago who emailed him out of the blue describing how he used biofeedback to get his upper esophageal sphincter back in sync. The man asked that the doctor share his discovery with those who also suffered from the same condition.

Dr. Kahrilas passed that email along to me. Looks like I have some practicing to do.

The author is a senior staff writer at Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @pauljsquire. If you can’t burp either, he’d be happy to commiserate.

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