We’ve all been there at some point: stricken with hiccups at the worst time. In most cases, waiting a few minutes or trying a home remedy may do the trick.
But what exactly causes them?
Science has developed some theories, but hiccups remain a bit of a mystery. We do know that hiccups are involuntary contractions, or spasms, of the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the muscle that helps us breathe. When the diaphragm spasms, it causes air to rush into the lungs, which makes the vocal cords close suddenly. The “hic” sound is the result of the vocal cords rapidly snapping shut.
A variety of things can trigger hiccups, including:
Eating too fast or too much
Drinking carbonated beverages or alcohol
Sudden temperature changes
Swallowing air when chewing gum
Some medications, such as steroids, anesthetics, and drugs used to treat Parkinson’s disease or chemotherapy, can also prompt hiccups. Other possible causes include irritation or damage to the phrenic nerve, which controls the motion of the diaphragm, or the vagus nerve, which is connected to the larynx. Irritation may originate from a tumor in your neck, a sore throat, laryngitis, or even a hair in your ear touching your eardrum.
While most times hiccups disappear within a few minutes, there are rare cases of chronic or persistent hiccups. If hiccups persist for more than 48 hours, see your doctor, as the condition may indicate there’s something more serious going on. Some underlying causes of chronic hiccups can include:
Psychological issues like fear, hysteria, or shock
While home remedies like holding your breath, sipping cold water, gargling with ice water, breathing into a paper bag, or just waiting them out can help alleviate short-term hiccups, treatment for chronic hiccups depends on the cause. Medications that may be prescribed to help chronic hiccups include:
Tranquilizers like chlorpromazine or haloperidol
Anticonvulsants including phenytoin, valproic acid, and carbamazepine
In rare cases where medications are not effective, surgery may be recommended to temporarily or permanently block the phrenic nerve.
The causes of hiccups can be as varied as the types of remedies suggested for relief. Understanding what your body is telling you and paying attention to its cues can help expedite your relief and may aid you in solving an underlying medical issue you never realized you had until you “hic!”-upped.