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Digestive-Health

05 February 2019

Unravelling the mystery of hiccups

Hiccups are a very common occurrence. Science, however, still struggles to understand just what causes them.

Nearly everyone gets them, but no one really knows why.

Hiccups are a reflexive spasm of the diaphragm, and they can happen to anyone from newborns to the elderly. It's even common for babies in the womb to be seen hiccupping on ultrasounds, according to Dr Stacey Milunic. She is a family medicine physician from Penn State Health.

But what triggers them remains unclear.

"We don't know for sure what causes them," Milunic said in a university news release. "It's not well understood."

Triggers

Many people develop hiccups when experiencing emotional states, such as anxiety or over-excitement. Or after eating a large meal or drinking carbonated beverages.

Hiccups are sometimes a side effect of medication or can occur after a medical procedure such as an endoscopy or after receiving anaesthesia. Some people blame hiccups on alcohol, smoking, chewing gum and eating spicy foods.

"Basically, anything that distends or expands the stomach or potentially could irritate it can bring them on," Milunic said.

While they can be irritating and embarrassing, hiccups rarely indicate a more serious, underlying medical condition.

Most cases disappear within 48 hours, but there are rare cases of intractable hiccups, which are more common in men than women.

"If you are hiccupping for more than two days, you would want to call your doctor," Milunic said. "Rarely, but on occasion, it could be a sign of damage to the nerve or another serious medical condition."

People use a number of methods to try to stop their hiccups, including holding their breath, breathing into a paper bag, asking someone to scare them or putting cold compresses on their face.

Milunic said her personal favourite is drinking water from the opposite side of the glass.

Image credit: iStock