The exact cause of hiccups is still a mystery, but here's what we know about a cure
- No one knows exactly what causes hiccups, but we do know what they are.
- Hiccups happen when an involuntary spasm in the diaphragm causes the vocal chords to snap shut, which makes that hiccup sound.
- The best hiccups cure might simply be distracting a person for a few minutes until they go away.
Everyone grows up with their own family hiccups cure. There's trying to scare the hiccup victim, holding one's breath, or drinking a glass of water upside-down from the far side of the glass.
As a kid, my family used the water-drinking technique, which was excellent at making a mess and seemed to be about as good as any other hiccups treatment out there. And actually, that might be the case.
That's because there's no single science-backed hiccups treatment, according to Gregory Levitin, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Health System.
"We don't understand why hiccups come and why they go," Levitin said. "But anything that has a distracting quality would be a positive experience," especially if that distraction provides some other form of stimulation.
While scientists don't know the true cause or best treatment for hiccups, they do know what they are. And there are a few strategies Levitin and other otolayngologists - ear, nose, and throat doctors - recommend for getting hiccups to end and for preventing them in the first place.
The mysterious cause of hiccups
A "hiccup" (also spelled hiccough) is the sound we make when we try to breathe in but an involuntary diaphragm spasm causes the vocal chords to snap shut. Doctors technically call this "singultus," a Latin term that refers to sobbing or gasping while sobbing.
Anything that extends the diaphragm or increases distension in the stomach could stimulate a nerve that might cause involuntary spasms, according to Levitin. That includes behaviors like overeating, eating too quickly, or drinking in a way that fills the stomach with air (like consuming carbonated drinks).
Babies tend to feed more often than adults and swallow more air when they do, whether they eat from a bottle or breast, so that could explain why they get hiccups more frequently.
But what's key is that hiccups stem from an involuntary contraction, a spasm like the ones you might get in a muscle after working out.
A hiccups cure
Though common, hiccups are fortunately an infrequent and self-limiting event for most people, according to Levitin.
Still, there are a few things he suggests for people who get the hiccups frequently.
"I tell people to take deep breaths and to hold the breaths in between," he said. If the problem is caused by excess air in the stomach, expanding the abdomen may move that air around, allowing some to escape. In a few cases, Levitin said he might try massaging the base of the neck where the phrenic nerve, which stimulates the diaphragm, is located.
Sometimes, these methods work - but then again, many supposed hiccup cures seem to work occasionally.
"If you do any of these things, it really just passes the time for a few minutes," Levitin said.
In rare cases, a case of hiccups can persist for months or even years. In those situations, doctors can try more serious interventions.
While there are no medications for hiccups themselves, side effects of other medications might help. Doctors have tried giving people a muscle relaxer or a drug that helps move food through the stomach. Injecting an anesthetic into the phrenic nerve might provide temporary relief, according to Levitin, though probably only for a few hours. In very severe cases, new options might include battery-powered implants that could stimulate the phrenic nerve.
For those patients with real hiccups issues, Levitin said alternative therapies may also provide assistance. Various forms of breath work might help, as could meditation or acupuncture.
But when it comes to final answers to the questions of where hiccups come from or how to make them go away, we still don't know.
"In the end, we all suffer from the human condition," Levitin said.