What are Hiccups and Why do they Occur?

What are Hiccups and Why do they Occur?

Have you ever wondered why do hiccups occur? Unlike other reflexes like coughing or sneezing, we do not know the physiologic advantage for hiccups. Yet, we tend to get them often.

Everyone suggests different treatment for them, but how do we cure hiccups actually?

Sometimes, hiccups occur because the nerves originating from your brains and passing through your stomach and lungs get irritated. This causes a sudden spasm.

Hiccups can also occur due to gastroesophageal reflux or an acid reflux. In some cases, certain medications may also cause hiccups.

For most of the persons, hiccups go away on their own after some time. However, persistent hiccups may last for months or even for years.

Whether you are trying to prevent acute hiccups because they are bothering you or you just happen to suffer from them in the long run, there are certain ways to cure them.

Keep reading to know how.

What are Hiccups?

Hiccups are actually the reflex that leads to a sudden contraction of the diaphragm, the basic muscle that you use to inhale.

The diaphragm lies just under your lungs. As it contracts involuntarily, it causes the air to rush into your lungs. This stops as soon as your vocal cords or glottis close. This is what produces a “hic” sound.

As per a research published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, a hiccup or singultus is a programmed exercise of the muscles.

How do we know this? This is because hiccups are often seen in premature infants and even fetuses. As the infancy occurs, hiccups are mostly useless but may occur due to an irritation along the reflex arc.

A hiccup occurs as the vagus and the phrenic nerve send signals from the brain to your respiratory muscles. The external intercostals muscles (running between the ribs and helps in breathing) and the diaphragm both contract leading to a forceful inhalation.

What are the Signs and Symptoms?

When you suffer from a hiccup, you might feel a bit tightening sensation in your chest, throat, or abdomen. The major sign is perhaps the “hic” sound that you produce as your windpipe shits immediately after the contraction of the diaphragm.

The rate of hiccups in everyone is different but is consistent for each episode. The frequency is usually 4 to 60 hiccups in one minute.

Hiccups are rendered as persistent if they stay longer than 48 hours. They can even affect the intake of food or drink, conversation, and even concentration.

Persistent hiccups can also lead to complications like frustration, exhaustion, insomnia, and even aspiration pneumonia.

Causes and Risk Factors of Hiccups

In most of the people, hiccups usually last for little time and then stop. They may occur at any time and sometimes may even start without any reason.

Following may be some of the causes of a hiccup attack:

  • Swallowing air
  • Going through a sudden change in stomach temperature
  • Excessive smoking
  • Sudden emotional stress
  • Sudden excitement
  • Drinking too many carbonated beverages
  • Consuming too much alcohol
  • Sudden emotional stress
  • A swollen stomach due to eating too much or quickly.

Acute hiccups that last on a short-term basis are more often seen in newborns which spend 2.5 percent of their in hiccups. As the infancy finishes, the frequency of hiccups also reduces and only happens occasionally.

What are Hiccups and Why do they Occur?

Persistent hiccups that last more than 48 hours might be due to a number of factors such as:


  • Disorders of the central nervous system
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Psychogenic disorders
  • Metabolic issues
  • Certain medicines

The two nerves that are responsible for involuntary contraction of your diaphragm include the phrenic and vagus nerves.

The vagus nerve is considered to be the longest cranial nerve containing sensory and motor fibers. It leaves the brain and enters the thorax via the neck. From there, it travels to the abdomen.

The phrenic nerve, on the other hand, starts in the neck and runs between the heart and the lung to reach diaphragm. Because it innervates the diaphragm, paralysis of this can cause persistent hiccups.

For some people, persistent hiccups are caused due to GI tract such as acid reflux, heartburn, or bloating which may irritate the diaphragm.

Hiccups may occur for a longer time because of lesions occurring in the pathway between the CNS to the phrenic nerve. This is possible in certain diseases such as encephalitis, meningitis, tumors, and traumatic brain injury.

Metabolic problems may also cause persistent hiccups sometimes. This may also be a sign of worsening liver or kidney function.

Long-term hiccups are more commonly seen in adult men, children, and people with comorbid conditions.

Hiccups Treatment

Most of the time, hiccups tend to go away on their own and do not require any medical treatment. People who still have it even after two days may need to address the issue causing it.

RELATED: What Are The Symptoms Of Hiatal Hernia?

Some of the conventional medicines used for treating long-term hiccups are:

Chlorpromazine: Chlorpromazine is used for controlling nausea, relieving prolonged hiccups, vomiting, behavioral problems, and even anxiety. This is usually the earliest medicine prescribed to people whose hiccups do not go away. Some of the side effects caused by this medicine include drowsiness, constipation, nausea, and trouble sleeping.

Gabapentin: Gabapentin is usually used for preventing and controlling seizures. It is actually an anticonvulsant which may be used for controlling stubborn hiccups that don’t go away on their own. Gabapentin may sometimes lead to dizziness, tremors, and loss of coordination as side effects.

Metoclopramide: Metoclopramide works by increasing the muscle contractions in the upper GI tract. It is usually used to treat heartburn caused due to GERD which also happens to be a common cause of hiccups. Using this drug in high doses or for long period of time can cause serious movement disorders. If you are currently taking this medicine, it is advised to talk to your doctor regarding its interactions with other products such as vitamins.

What are Hiccups and Why do they Occur?

Baclofen: Baclofen is prescribed to manage muscle spasms secondary to a spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis. The usual side effects of this drug may include nausea, headache, weakness, and difficulty in sleeping.

Proton Pump Inhibitors: The proton pump inhibitors are prescribed for treating gastroesophageal reflux, a problem that may trigger hiccups. PPIs can, however, cause an increase in gas, promote abdominal pain, and lead to digestive issues.

How to Get Rid of Hiccups in Newborns

It is quite common for a newborn to get hiccups but they don’t seem to get bothered by it as much as the adults do. To prevent your baby from hiccups, try burping them throughout their feeding.

This will allow all the extra gas to get out of their system. Let the baby digest the feeding by holding them in an upright position for 20 minutes.

If it is too late and your baby has already developed hiccups, you can treat them. First, try changing their position, make them burp, or calm them down. Also, provide your baby with a pacifier which can relax the diaphragm and stop them.

If the baby still has hiccups after ten minutes, try feeding them again from breasts or give them a bottle. This may sometimes help in getting rid of the hiccups.

Nancy holds a Pharmacy degree from University of Michigan and Masters of Science MS in Infectious Disease and Global Health (MS-IDGH) from Tufts University. She worked as a lecturer for three years before she turned towards medical writing. Her area of interest are infectious diseases; causes, mechanism, diagnosis, treatments and prevention strategies. Most of her writings ensure an easy understanding of uncommon diseases.

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