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Hiccups: The science behind the spasm

Last Modified: May 01, 2021

Family Medicine


Yes, hiccups are annoying and typically short-lived, but what happens when this pesky reflex keeps popping up? Kelly Robinson, NP, PPG – Family Medicine and Internal Medicine, helps answer our questions about why we get hiccups and offers strategies for getting them to stop while delving into what it could mean if they persist.

What are hiccups?

Hiccups are an uncontrolled tightening of the diaphragm muscle located at the base of the lungs, followed by a closure of the vocal cords, producing the common hiccup sound.

Why do we get hiccups?

The most common triggers that bring on hiccups include alcohol use, drinking carbonated beverages, and excess air intake when chewing gum. Additionally, triggers also include excitement or stress, and believe it or not; men are more likely to get hiccups than women.

What are some common ways people can treat their hiccups at home?

There are simple steps that anyone can take to get rid of their hiccups. Some strategies can include holding your breath for a few seconds, pulling your knees into your chest when sitting down or performing a technique called the Valsalva maneuver. The method is achieved by pinching your nose tightly and then trying to blow air out. Other methods can also include breathing into a paper bag and gargling with ice water. While some of these techniques may sound and even feel silly, they can be extremely helpful in getting rid of your hiccups.

When should someone seek medical intervention for their hiccups?

Typically, hiccups only last a few hours, but they can last up to two days. A bout of hiccups rarely lasts longer than 48 hours. Still, if they do persist, you should bring your concern to your provider’s attention, especially if the hiccups are interfering with everyday activities and interrupting eating or sleeping.

Could complications arise if someone’s hiccups go untreated?

Prolonged hiccups may be due to other underlying conditions that may need exploring. Some of these conditions could include:

  • Central nervous system disorders
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Thoracic disorders
  • Cardiovascular disorders

Additionally, certain medications, recent surgery and various psychological disorders may also cause persistent hiccups. Lab work and imaging using an x-ray, endoscopy, computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be necessary to evaluate the reason for recurrent hiccups cases. Treatment options generally work toward correcting the underlying condition, but if a specific cause is not apparent, muscle relaxers or anticonvulsant medications may be used in the interim.

How can someone prevent hiccups in the future?

If you are looking to avoid hiccups in the future, it’s best to circumvent any triggers that aggravate the condition, such as carbonated beverages and large meals. Scheduling a yearly exam with your provider is also important and recommended to catch and prevent any underlying conditions.


Helpful resources

Mayo Clinic


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