Here's Why We Get Hiccups & How to Get Rid of Them
Chances are, you’ve been a victim of the hiccups.
While a hiccupping baby might make people giggle, a hiccupping co-worker does not produce the same effect. To save you from passive-aggressive comments and frustrated sighs from around the office, we spoke to two respiratory system experts about the mysterious (and super-annoying!) human phenomena of hiccups — and how to stop them in their tracks.
What is a hiccup?
OK, we’re 99.99 percent sure that you know what a hiccup is. But what’s actually going on in there?!
“A hiccup is an involuntary, rhythmic contraction of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles,” said Dr. Adam Wass, a family medicine physician at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “It ends with an abrupt closure of your throat — called the glottis — which makes the characteristic ‘hic’ sound.”
According to Wass, there are actually three different categories of hiccups that individuals report, all with their respective official medical names:
- A bout of hiccups: lasting less than 48 hours
- Persistent hiccups: lasting between 48 hours and one month
- Intractable hiccups: lasting longer than one month
But whether they last one minute or one month, these strange, tiny contractions don’t actually do anything for our body.
“There is no known physiologic purpose of hiccups,” pulmonologist Dr. Inchel Yeam of Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, told SheKnows. “Hiccups have been described in utero, and some have suggested that this may be for babies to exercise their diaphragm and inspiratory muscles.”
Great, just another involuntary bodily function Mother Nature forces us to deal with.
So, what actually triggers these seemingly random bursts?
Bouts of hiccups have a lengthy list of causes, many of which are normal, everyday activities.
“The most common causes of hiccups are gastric distention, carbonated drinks, swallowing air, change in stomach or ambient temperature, alcohol, sudden excitement or stress,” said Yeam.
Persistent or intractable hiccups, on the other hand, are usually caused by some sort of irritation to your reflex arc, the nerve pathway that causes immediate, automatic movements.
Wass explained these throat, esophagus and diaphragm irritations can occur due to a number of infections, including meningitis, pneumonia or hepatitis. Conditions such as gallbladder disease, pulmonary embolisms and tumors can also spur the hiccups.
“Toxic or metabolic causes such as anesthesia, alcohol or uremia related to kidney failure can lead to hiccups,” Yeam added. “And rarely, a foreign body such as small hair can rub against the eardrum, irritating the auricular branch of the vagus nerve, and cause persistent hiccups.”
Unfortunately, a good deal of these catalysts are completely out of our control. Our only option is to fight back!
How the heck should we get rid of them?
For years, we’ve been armed with the homemade-but-slightly-questionable hiccup remedies of our grandmothers, like holding our breath for an unspecified period of time or waiting to be scared by an overly enthusiastic sibling. While there hasn’t been a serious long-term case study on hiccup remedies, our experts weighed in with their approved remedies — which vary depending on the severity of your case of hiccups.
If the hiccups don’t disappear on their own as they often do, Wass suggests a few tried-and-true techniques:
- Interrupting respiratory function such as breath-holding and the Valsalva maneuver (aka shutting your mouth and nose and blowing your cheeks up like a balloon)
- Stimulating the back of the throat and the uvula by any means, including sipping cold water traditionally or out of the top side of the glass, gargling or swallowing a teaspoon of dry sugar
- Increasing vagal stimulation by putting an ice pack on the eyeball or soaking your hand in warm water
- Counteracting the irritation of the diaphragm by pulling knees to the chests or bending forward
Don’t these remedies sound familiar? Doctor Grandma may have been on to something. However, for the unlucky few who develop more severe cases of the hiccups, the solutions are a bit more intense.
According to Yeam, medical treatments for intractable hiccups can include acupuncture, specialized breathing therapies or even certain medications such as chlorpromazine, metoclopramide or baclofen.
“Surgery involving diaphragm pacing has also been performed on patients with many years of intractable hiccups with good outcome, but should be reserved for extreme cases only,” Yeam said.
Surgery for hiccups? Will my insurance cover that?!
Don’t freak out — that’s worst-case scenario.
“Most hiccups are self-limiting and will likely resolve on its own,” Yeam assured us. “If it persists more than a couple days, you may want to consult with your doctor just to make sure there is nothing more serious going on.”
In that case, don’t give up on the old-school remedies for curing hiccups just yet. And if you’ve had hiccups for over a month, we highly suggest you quit reading this article and get yourself to a doctor ASAP!