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My Life As A Never-Burp

Inside the weird dysfunction that leaves me croaking like a frog

I’ve burped, to the best of my memory, less than a dozen times in my life. There are specific conditions that allow me to do so and all of them are best met at a children’s birthday party. I must eat greasy cheese pizza, accompanied by Coca-Cola. Next, I hop in a swimming pool without allowing the recommended 30 minutes to pass. And lastly, while in the heavily chlorinated water, I must laugh extremely hard. A few seconds into one of these belly laughs, a monstrous sound will emerge from somewhere in my esophagus that’s apparently similar to the one I made when I came out of the womb: like the deep call of a bullfrog.

Given that a newborn infant isn’t supposed to sound like a toad, I was rushed off to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit immediately thereafter. That would obviously be terrifying for any parent, but it was especially terrifying for my mother. My older brother was born a week short of four months premature, resulting in severe cerebral palsy that affects his mental and physical capabilities. He spent as much time in the NICU as he did in the womb.

I, though, was brought back to my mother quickly — the croaking, it turns out, was fine. But ever since, there have been barely any burps. A condition that I honestly haven’t given much thought. After all, burping was for heavy beer drinkers and middle school boys; I was a ballerina and an A+ student. Basically, I had no business burping.

I did, however, have severe chest pain multiple times a week. As such, during my dance classes, my chest felt like a gravity stick, and sounded like one, too.

I never brought it up to doctors, though I did frequently complain of stomach pain to my school’s nurses. But they always chalked it up to “stress at home.” In a town of 3,000, your family reputation does not escape you: My brother was well-known for his charm, but also his disabilities. More inescapably still, my sister was arrested at prom for drug possession. And so, the school nurses would merely feed me crackers and let me lay down on a blue faux-leather bed in darkness.

For most of my life then, I’ve simply waited for all the gurgling, hiccups, bloating and chest pains to pass. On countless occasions, I’ve asked friends to pat me on the back like a baby, a technique that doesn’t work but provides me comfort nonetheless. When I began drinking, I became a hiccup queen, and on many occasions, throwing up has provided me with some relief from chest pain. In one particular instance, at my request, a friend choked me until I passed out in order to stop my hiccups.

It wasn’t until recently that it fully occurred to me that maybe being unable to burp is a problem. That is, a few weeks ago, I learned of a young man whose frequent chest pain caused by an inability to belch was cured by a few shots of Botox to the sternum. It was a revelation: Until that moment, I had considered my affliction a harmless side effect of whatever medical problem I had; I never thought it was a problem in and of itself.

After doing some digging, I found an article from a 1987 issue of the medical journal Gastroenterology that presented one of the first reported cases of the condition. A 25-year-old woman came to doctors with frequent chest pain. Similar to my situation, they attributed it to stress, and her few instances of burping happened in the water. This woman’s case was a bit more extreme than mine, though — sometimes the pressure in her chest was so severe that it caused her to choke and faint.

Marc Leavey, a general practitioner at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, says, “The inability to burp, or belch, isn’t common, but it does happen in many people.” The problem most frequently occurs in those with gastroesophageal reflux disease, as they can have an irritated esophagus that prevents their belching. “For these people, appropriate anti-acid regiments, dietary modification and trying not to eat too quickly are often remedy enough to allay the problem,” Leavey says. “For others, though, there’s a problem with the muscle that controls the upper esophageal sphincter, interfering with its ability to relax. The condition is termed retrograde cricopharyngeus dysfunction, or R-CPD. Far from a minor discomfort, people with R-CPD suffer from symptoms ranging from upper esophageal fullness to chest pain as severe as a heart attack.”

I know one other person who has the same problem as me — my friend Stephen. It was something he hadn’t thought much of growing up, either. His friends would have burping contests, and he just assumed it was something he hadn’t learned how to do. And while he felt the gurgling in his chest and heard it as he tried to fall asleep at night, laying on his left side usually relieved the problem (as it continues to).

Socially, I’ve managed to slip by as someone who can’t burp. Admittedly, it’s probably because I’m a girl, and though there was certainly that pressure in my chest to burp, the social pressure to do so was nonexistent (I was mostly actively encouraged to stay ladylike). Because as my colleague Miles Klee once wrote, “I took shit from the other boys in grade school because I didn’t burp as loudly or expertly as they did. It’s probably why I’m socially awkward and have trouble making male friends to this day. If I hadn’t been burping at all… man, I’d be in prison by now.”

Life, of course, has been easier for me in this regard. If anything, I’ve been able to let the weird noises my body involuntarily produces to become a weird little quirk of mine: Being unable to burp is my personal fun fact. And though the pain isn’t fun, sounding like a frog kind of is.