I cannot burp or blow up balloons. No, really. Is this weird?
December 30, 2008 7:38 AM   Subscribe

I cannot burp or blow up balloons. No, really. Is this weird?

When it comes up (not that it often does, of course), people are always quite surprised - sometimes to the point of disbelief - that I cannot burp or blow up balloons.

I think they think I am saying the burping part because I'm female and want to portray some kind of innocent girly image.

I'm not talking about burping on demand, by the way. I just never ever burp. If I drink a coke or a beer, I just feel uncomfortable and bloated but the air seems to like staying where it is.

Also, I cannot blow up balloons. The air sticks in my cheeks until it hurts, and I seem to be unable to force it into the balloon.

Finally, I sigh a LOT, without even realising I'm doing it. It's almost like sometimes I think "oh, I haven't taken a breath for a while" so I take one big one, which prompts people to ask me what's wrong (they think it's an upset sigh).

These all seem linked, given that it's to do with air leaving my body (I'm a genius aren't I). Obviously if I was actually worried I'd see a doctor, but I don't think it's a problem. I just wondered if it was common, or whether I'm just doing something (like breathing, for my entire life, maybe) very wrong?
posted by angryjellybean to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well, I experience the same not being able to blow up balloons thing, but it never seems like that big of a deal. I get all lightheaded and my cheeks and gums tingle after I try for a few minutes but I'm never able to fully blow up a balloon. I can, however, burp. Maybe it is the way you're breathing, perhaps you should try some deep breathing exercises?
posted by big open mouth at 7:47 AM on December 30, 2008

I figure the answer is no, but have you ever tried/were you ever able to play a wind musical instrument?

If you were able to do that, I'd be stumped, but if you weren't, then it's probably all tied together somehow. Maybe. I'm a musician, not a doctor.
posted by SNWidget at 7:58 AM on December 30, 2008

that's weird but it doesn't surprise me. anatomy is one of those weird things where everyone is different, maybe you're missing a random muscle or something. it can happen.

it doesn't sound like it's particularly serious, but maybe worth mentioning at your next doctor's appointment, because it might be a sign of something else. like maybe you have something compressing your phrenic nerve (nerve that controls the diaphragm) or your vagus nerve (controls throat, larynx muscles) thus making them weak. take that with a grain of salt, as IANAP (but I am an anatomy student.) :-)
posted by lblair at 8:09 AM on December 30, 2008

Can you whistle? Blowing up a balloon I think is similar.

Do you ever vomit? There is some correlation between vomiting and burping. Do you feel abhorrence toward vomiting?

I know someone else who can't burp either (except on very, very rare spontaneous occasions when an itty little bit of air escapes). No big deal. I feel bad for her, because burping is sometimes very relieving.

I don't know if it's common, but lots of things are uncommon, like people who can make their tongues form a four-leaf clover, but there's nothing wrong with them.
posted by jabberjaw at 8:11 AM on December 30, 2008

The air sticks in my cheeks until it hurts

Are you perhaps allowing your cheeks to puff out as you attempt to blow into the balloon? Don't do that. It ruins your embouchure.

No clue about the non-burping thing.
posted by flabdablet at 8:14 AM on December 30, 2008

IANAD, but I do work for a non-profit respiratory institution. You would probably be surprised at the many and varied types of pulmonary issues people can have. Maybe you could find out if there is any spirometry (lung function) testing in your area to check your lung capacity, health, etc.
posted by Kimberly at 8:20 AM on December 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

I do the sighing thing as well.
posted by proj at 8:27 AM on December 30, 2008

Yup. Sounds weird to me.
posted by gramcracker at 8:30 AM on December 30, 2008

Seconding Kimberly. Can you make your lungs expand enough to push on your hand when you hold it on top of them? Don't know if that's exactly a litmus test for your problem (not a doctor, natch), but it sounds to me like you could potentially have something going on with thoracic diaphragm.

Both of these things (like singing well/playing a wind instrument) have to do with being able to push air with that muscle. Before you spend a bunch of money/time with a doctor, you might try exercising it.
posted by nosila at 8:31 AM on December 30, 2008

Can you whistle? Blowing up a balloon I think is similar

I can whistle just fine, but can't blow up a balloon. I can't blow my nose either, but then again I don't breathe through it (cleft palate issues). I burp/belch just fine.

My husband sighs all the time, and like your friends, I ask him what's wrong, but maybe he's doing it for the same reason you are.
posted by desjardins at 8:37 AM on December 30, 2008

I can't burp, either! Well, it's extremely rare that I do, anyway. I'm talking one burp a year, and I think I've missed my 2008 edition (still two days left!). I can blow up balloons, but only barely, and I get really lightheaded when I try. Last time I tried to blow out birthday candles, my party guests had to take over to save me the shame. Sometimes, like Tay Zonday, I move away from the phone to breathe. I just run out of air. Oddly, I could deafen you with a yell if I really wanted to.

Anyway, I've had my lung capacity checked, and it's pretty darn low. This is most likely due to childhood respiratory illnesses (I was one sick child. A lot.). I'm otherwise quite healthy, and exercise has improved this a little. Do you have a history of bronchitis or anything like that? And I honestly have no idea if low lung capacity is at all related to the inability to burp. I never made the connection, myself, but it sounds plausible.
posted by katillathehun at 8:41 AM on December 30, 2008

I'm an anti-vomiting hardliner and can't really make myself on purpose or do it by accident - the best I can do is swallow a bit of air and then tip my head back to straighten my throat out and then there's a very tiny gurgle. It is a bit annoying because then I just feel bloated and kind of nauseous, cue much OHGODWHATIFIMSICK stuff. Getting over myself in this regard is probs an Ask Mefi for another day :-)

I can blow up balloons though although sometimes it seems really hard to start, it's almost like there is a "knack" but I can't quite describe what it is other than "blowing."
posted by so_necessary at 8:42 AM on December 30, 2008

I've burped maybe four or five times in my life, total -- all in the past couple of years (I'm 30). I don't know why I don't ever burp, it just doesn't happen. I eat a lot and really fast, I often drink a lot and really fast, and sometimes I get very bad hiccups from the combination of both, but never a burp. I cannot whistle or blow bubbles with gum either. I can definitely blow up a balloon though. As a kid I was always ashamed of not being able to whistle or snap (I've since learned how to snap). There's simply a lot of things I can't do, and I have no idea why.
posted by creasy boy at 8:48 AM on December 30, 2008

I can't blow up balloons either, and I also rarely burp (and I get that bloatyness at times -- although, in my case, we'll just say that it takes an alternate egress sometimes).

I can whistle, but it took me a while to learn -- although, I chalk that up to having learned an alternate means of whistling when I was a kid -- I just would sing "ooo" noises in an extremely, extremely high falsetto, and since I was used to that I had to un-learn it first before learning actual whistling.

If it's any consolation, though, these traits seem to have had little to no affect on my overall health, so I just chalk it up to "everyone's body has its own quirks, and these just happen to be mine".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:55 AM on December 30, 2008

Blowing up balloons is a technique thing - as a camp counselor and a teacher I had to blow up hundreds. I learned quickly that you don't put any air into your cheeks to do it. That DOES hurt and is ineffective and tiring. Instead, make a cylindrical channel of your mouth, tightening your cheeks and pursing your lips. Fill your lungs with a deep breath, then force air into the balloon from your diaphragm - not your throat or mouth.

In general it sounds like you are a shallow breather. This is pretty common and it could account for the sighing and the balloon problem. A lot of people have a habit of breathing only from the chest. It's not really sufficient for getting enough oxygen, so every now and then you end up drawing a deeper breath and then sighing it out.

Shallow breathing can be related to anxiety. People tend to breathe faster and shallower when anxious, and so sighing becomes the body's attempt to grab some oxygen with a big breath and then release tension on the sigh. Is anxiety a possibility?

You can train yourself to breathe more deeply and use your diaphragm. Yoga breathing teaches this - even one yoga class might surprise you in that you'll be amazed how long you can sustain breathing in and out and how much air you can hold. It's also amazingly relaxing, which can help with anxiety. Breathing in for a full, slow count of eight and out for a full slow count of 8 for 60 seconds or so is an excellent exercise - if you do that a couple of times a day, you can gradually make progress in retraining yourself to breathe deeply. Another trick I've heard is to sit up straight and place one hand on your chest, fingers spread, and one on your belly, just over your belly button. Breathe normally. Which hand rises the most? Then spend a minute or so trying to breathe so that your belly hand perceptibly rises on each breath. That forces you to use the diaphragm muscle, drawing more air deeply into your lungs.

The burping thing is weird, though. I think it might be worth a question to your doctor - it doesn't sound like an emergency, but you might want to ask the question. The reason I think it's worth mentioning is that there are things that can go wrong with your digestive tract that mess up functions like burping - things like hernias and such. It does strike me as odd that the excess air that everyone takes in with their food never comes up through your esophagus. What's making it go the other way? I'm not a doctor but it never hurts to ask whether this is anything to take note of. It could be that you are just a really excellent chew-er and don't swallow much air as you eat, in which case, great.
posted by Miko at 9:31 AM on December 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Are you sure you whistle out? Some people whistle by drawing air in.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:36 AM on December 30, 2008

The burping vs. blowing up a balloon thing might be related, but I would guess that they're probably not. Obviously burping air and breathing air come from different places in your body (stomach vs. lungs, respectively). Your diaphragm is sort of involved in both of those: it's the muscle that expands your lungs for breathing in, and it's also a muscle that your esophagus passes through just above where it enters your stomach (google up esophageal hiatus if you like). This little hole in the diaphragm for your esophagus helps prevent acid reflux from the stomach, so it could potentially also be preventing any gas from getting out the top end either.

On the other hand, you don't use your diaphragm for blowing out forcefully, because you can't forcefully relax it (or any other muscle, for that matter). Other muscles like some abdominal muscles and the intercostals between your ribs are more important for forceful out-breathing. But maybe if you're not getting full lungfuls of air (due to diaphragm problems or something else) you just don't have enough air to blow out into a balloon.

That's all a pretty random collection of info, but maybe something in there will spur further inquiry. I'm not a doctor, just somebody who took Anatomy pretty recently.
posted by vytae at 9:53 AM on December 30, 2008

I don't burp, although I do occasionally make a tiny burp noise when yawning. My younger brother also couldn't burp when we were growing up, but I think now (he's 25), he can burp sometimes (although maybe not on demand). I've wondered if some people learn to avoid or suppress burping because they found the sensation unpleasant. I've actually done a real burp two or three times in my life, and each time scared me because I thought I was like, surprise-vomiting. So even though it was a pressure-relief thing, I associate it with the feeling that I've lost control of something coming out of me (ew). It sucks, because I really like beer, but I can't relieve the pressure that drinking several beers builds up.

I also do the big sigh thing, with the exact thought process that you describe. I mostly attribute that to hyper-focusing on work or an activity for a while, and then "coming up for air" both mentally and physically.

However, I have no problem blowing up balloons, and I'm actually a very strong whistler (and I know that I whistle by blowing out).
posted by transporter accident amy at 10:39 AM on December 30, 2008

As others have said, it sounds like you are not breathing as efficiently as you could be. If you want to improve, you could try some breathing excercises. Andrew Weil sells some good CDs and has a few exercises for free here on his website.
posted by agatha_magatha at 10:57 AM on December 30, 2008

I don't know about the blowing up of balloons so much, but burping involves the lower esophageal sphincter and just as some people have a more relaxed one that predisposes to acid reflux, others can have a tight one that could cause the symptoms you describe. There are a number of diseases that can affect the LES but they would typically have other symptoms, such as trouble swallowing as well as a history of esophageal surgery or lye ingestion, for example. On the other hand, have you ever traveled to Latin America?

Sighs are pretty common and serve a number of purposes. I suspect when someone seems to sigh a lot you are just more attuned to it and are quicker to notice it.
posted by TedW at 11:16 AM on December 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

you don't use your diaphragm for blowing out forcefully,

Sorry, that was ignorant of me. Singers often hear the instruction to push "from the diaphragm" so I assumed the muscle could push as well as pull. So the muscles we're using to sing, blow up balloons, etc, must be various abdominals. The forceful blowing is a technique of flexing the muscles of the lower midsection (not the chest) until they're firm and then pushing air out, though.
posted by Miko at 11:34 AM on December 30, 2008

I second nosila. You could have a weak thoracic diaphragm and/or poor diaphragm control. It would explain all your symptoms. I think it would be beneficial to do some abdominal and breathing exercises not because you can't burp or blow up a balloon but because it does have an impact on breathing which is an important aspect of any persons health.
posted by robofunk at 12:11 PM on December 30, 2008

I was going to guess that chronically swollen tonsils might be impinging on the area where the trachea and esophagus meet, making it impossible for the upper esophageal sphincter to open upward against pressure from below (therefore no burps), and hard to move air out of your trachea against back pressure because that pressure could be pushing your tonsils back against the tracheal opening (therefore no balloons)-- but I see from a previous question that you have had recurrent tonsillitis and were planning to have them removed. Did you?

Swollen tonsils could mean a narrowed airway and that could account for the sighing because it might result in shallow breathing and the consequent necessity of periodically expelling some of the deeper dead air in your lungs your breathing isn't touching by sighing a lot.

The issue of using your diaphragm to breathe out is an interesting one. It seems to me relaxing your diaphragm could result in forcefully expelling air if the diaphragm is contracting against elastic resistance (such as the resistance afforded by the surface tension of the alveoli in your lungs, for example). The widely reported 'death rattle' could be one piece of evidence for such forceful expulsion by relaxation, I suppose.
posted by jamjam at 1:01 PM on December 30, 2008

I have asthma and I was unable to blow up balloons for years due to reduced lung capacity. However, judging from your comments about hurting your cheeks, I think you're just doing it wrong.

Try using a rigid tube of some sort to blow up the balloon - I'll bet you could do it easily.

Any asthma specialist or pulmonologist could do a routine test and tell you if there's anything weird about your lung capacity.
posted by mmoncur at 4:51 PM on December 30, 2008

For those interested in the mechanics of breathing and the muscles and bones involved, there is an over-formatted but informative powerpoint presentation here that explains among other things the difference between passive and active exhalation and the role of the intercostal muscles.
posted by TedW at 4:54 PM on December 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

I thought I was the only one who didn't burp (a couple times a year, at most.) I'm so relieved to see I'm not alone. I WISH I could burp. I get so bloated an uncomfortable.
posted by lysistrata at 6:38 PM on December 30, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses - they're actually very interesting, plus someone mentioned anxiety (which I do indeed suffer from).

I CAN actually whistle, both inward and outward, just fine. Plus another thing I probably should have mentioned is, although I never exercise (yes, it's terrible, I know), I get quite breathless at the top of even just 1 flight of stairs. I think the whole low lung capacity theory is probably right, and will look into the breathing exercises to see if it can help.

Things keep occuring to me now that I probably should have mentioned yesterday, including the fact that I get a nasty headrush probably at least 3/4 times a week. Possibly all related to that, too...

And yes, lysistrata, it is indeed very uncomfortable when you wish you could burp and can't.

Thanks again everyone!
posted by angryjellybean at 12:33 AM on December 31, 2008

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