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How Do Hiccups Work?


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 Anatomy   |   Biology   |   Health   |   Science
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Everyone gets hiccups, but no one is entirely sure why. Learn what’s going on when you hiccup, plus a couple theories about why hiccups happen.

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Hey BrainStuff, I’m Jonathan and today’s question is “How do we get hiccups?” Science isn’t sure, actually.

But it's not that medical science has been ignoring hiccups. When these spasms are frequent or persistent in adults, they can indicate over a hundred different diseases and disorders, from multiple sclerosis to cancer to appendicitis.

And hiccups themselves can get serious. In what’s called intractable cases, hiccups don’t stop for more than a month and can go on for years without relief, leading to complications like irregular heartbeat, weight loss, insomnia, and emotional distress. Understandably.

But OK, science isn't totally ignorant here. We know the basics. Hiccups are reflexive spasms of the diaphragm and glottis caused by irritation to any of several nerves throughout your body.

During normal breathing, you move air into and out of your lungs partially thanks to contractions of your diaphragm. It contracts (pulling downward) as you inhale, then releases (relaxing upward) as you exhale. And all that air moves through your larynx and glottis – that’s the opening between your vocal cords.

During a hiccup, at least half of the diaphragm contracts sharply; about 80 percent of the time, it’s just the left half. That contraction starts pulling in a deep breath, but it gets cut short by the glottis snapping shut about three-hundredths of a second later. The “hic” sound comes from that sudden closure.

In most cases, hiccups are caused by irritation of the phrenic nerves, which control the motion of the diaphragm and send your brain sensory information about what’s going on in various parts of your neck and body.

That irritation is usually from your stomach distending when you when you accidentally swallow air, or when you eat or drink too much too fast. Especially carbonated beverages, like soda and beer.

Irritations of the vagus nerve can also be hiccup culprits, possibly due to its connection to the larynx: Anything from ulcers in your small intestine to a hair poking at the inside of your ear, and lots of stuff in between.

If you're looking to get rid of hiccups, some of the most common home remedies really are worthwhile. They work by either overloading the phrenic or vagus nerves or by interrupting your involuntary breathing cycle.

For nerve overload, try biting into a lemon, placing a spoonful of sugar on the back of your tongue, pulling on your tongue, or having a friend tickle or scare you.

On the respiratory end, try holding your breath, gulping down a glass of water, or breathing into a paper bag. If nothing works, hiccups generally go away on their own. If they stick around for more than 48 hours, see a doctor just in case.

The purpose behind this reflex is still a mystery. Some researchers say they could be vestigial spasms related to how our amphibian ancestors controlled their gills.

Others postulate that they help with breastfeeding: Hiccups can release small amounts of air from the stomach into the esophagus, where it can be exhaled. So hiccups might serve to get air out of babies’ stomachs, making more space for milk.


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