The Real Reason We Get The Hiccups Is Not What You Think

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We’ve all had them at some point. And everyone’s got a special way to get rid of them. But what exactly are they and why do we get them in the first place?

Hiccups are more scientifically known as involuntary contractions of the diaphragm. They’ve also been medically referred to as singultus, which derives from a Latin term that means catching one’s breath while crying.

Your diaphragm is a dome-shaped layer of muscle that separates your chest from your abdomen, and plays a vital role in the breathing process. It sits below the lungs, which are enclosed in the thoracic cavity by the ribcage.


When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts and flattens to make more space for your lungs to expand. And when we exhale, the diaphragm balls up, making the lungs smaller.

Throughout the breathing process, all that air moves through your larynx and glottis, which is the opening between your vocal cords. Now, when you hiccup, at least half of the diaphragm contracts sharply. That contraction starts pulling in for a deep breath, but is cut short by the glottis snapping shut.

So the diaphragm initiates an intake of air, but the shutting of the vocal cords prevents that air from entering the windpipe and reaching the lungs. This is also what creates the “hic” sound.


But what exactly causes hiccups to happen in the first place?

Most of the time, hiccups are caused by irritation of the phrenic nerves, which is what controls your diaphragm movement. And that irritation is usually caused by an expansion of the stomach. Many things can cause sudden stomach expansion.

Swallowing air. Drinking too quickly, especially carbonated beverages. Or eating too fast.


Hiccups are also sometimes associated with intense emotions. Laughter, anxiety, sobbing, and excitement have all been known to trigger the hiccups.

Hiccups usually last just a couple minutes, but hiccups that last longer than 48 hours are called “persistent hiccups”. And, while rare, hiccups that last longer than month are called “intractable hiccups” and can cause exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and weight loss.

Both persistent and intractable hiccups may be a sign of a more serious health issue, and should be checked out by a doctor. The longest case of the hiccups on record belongs to Charles Osborne, who in 1922 started hiccuping while weighing a pig. He was unable to find a cure and hiccupped until February 1990, for a total of 68 years.


So how do you avoid being like that guy and actually get rid of your hiccups?

Most home remedies for curing hiccups either overload the phrenic nerves or interrupt your breathing cycle. Having a friend tickle or scare you is one tactic. Another one is to hold your breath and to try to physically contract your diaphragm in order to stop the spasms.

Yet another strategy is to drink water from the opposite side of the glass, which causes your muscles to contract in such a way as to probably stop your hiccups. But every case is different and everyone has a home remedy they swear by.

So what’s your hiccup cure?