Surprisingly little is actually known about hiccups. The name itself is onomatopoeic, mimicking the abrupt rush of air into the lungs causes the epiglottis to close. In medicine, hiccups is known as synchronous diaphragmatic flutter (SDF), or singultus.
But, basically, when you hiccup, your diaphragm (and the muscles near to it) convulse, causing you to briefly gulp air. This causes the glottis to slam shut which makes the “hic” noise. Once the hiccups start, unless you can stop them right away they usually go on for what seems like forever. The record for longest bout of hiccups is 68 years(1).
You can get hiccups when your stomach is distended such as when you drink carbonated beverages, or when you swallow too much air, drinking fizzy mixers, or when you slurp your drinks. Other things that can cause hiccups include having a skull fracture, epilepsy, having a bowel obstruction, ulcerative colitis or even a heart attack. Sometimes it can be something simple like an ear hair tickling the eardrum.
The general train of thought is that an accidental reflex triggered by a stimulus to vagus or phrenic nerves causes hiccups. These nerves run all over our bodies and would explain why there are so many things that can cause us to start hiccupping.
How Can You Treat Hiccups Naturally?
Home remedies generally fall into one of three categories. The categories are firstly, psychosomatic cures involving relaxation or distraction, cures focused on swallowing or eating, and cures involving controlled and altered breathing.
Most natural remedies for hiccups focus on disrupting the hiccup cycle, including holding your breath, inducing sneezing, breathing into a paper bag, drinking water, pulling your tongue, pressing your eyeballs, eating a spoonful of sugar, or taking in a slow deep breath and instead of letting the air out, HOLD it and swallow.
You of course have nothing to swallow but the act of swallowing while holding your breath should stop the hiccup cycle. You can also try drinking a pint of water all at once without stopping.
One theory behind the holding your breath remedy is that when you have hiccups it is because your diaphragm somehow got out of shape and by holding your breath the diaphragm is able to regain its shape again.
Where the Streets Have no Spasm
Those individuals who have had hiccups for years will say that there is no natural or otherwise cure for the hiccups because it is a spasm of the diaphragm that will stop having spasms when it is good and ready to. Some say that if you lie down flat on your back that you can stop your diaphragm from having spasms. It is the spasms that cause the vocal cords to close quickly and makes the loud, sound of hiccups.
There are many things that may trigger the occurrence of hiccups including hot or spicy foods, strong fumes, eating too fast, or swallowing air along with your beverage or food. Sometimes you can get hiccups when you have pleurisy or pneumonia.
When to See the Doctor
Hiccups are sometimes treated medically, but only in severe and intractable cases, such as in the case of a 15 year old girl who in 2007 hiccuped continuously for five weeks.(2) In these extreme cases, Haldol, an anti-psychotic and sedative, metoclopramide (Reglan, a gastrointestinal stimulant), and chlorpromazine (Thorazine, an anti-psychotic with strong sedative effects) are the drugs of choice for treatment.
Also, an intranasal vinegar spray is considered safe and handy method to stimulate the dorsal wall of nasopharynx, where the pharyngeal branch of the glossopharyngeal nerve (afferent of the hiccup reflex arc) is distributed.(3)
1. “Survivor of 68-Year Hiccup Spell Dies. Omaha World – Herald, 05 May 1991, Sunrise Edition: 2.B.
2. “Teen’s hiccups stop after five weeks”, ABC News Online (2007-03-02).
3. Iwasaki, N; et al. (2007 May). “Hiccup treated by administration of intranasal vinegar”. No To Hattatsu 39 (3): 2025.
Image by Darren Hopes, Wellcome Images, Creative Commons License.