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Hiccups that just won't quit are almost as annoying as being stuck in traffic for hours — with no air conditioning. We may be exaggerating here, but this mysterious bodily function is just as strange as it is irritating. So what exactly is going on when you hiccup — and how can you stop them?
What are hiccups?
"Hiccups occur when there is a sudden, involuntary contraction of the diaphragm, a muscle that lies just below the lungs and separates the chest cavity from the abdomen," said Dr. Andrea Paul, chief medical officer at BoardVitals.com, a website for health care professionals. "As the diaphragm contracts very quickly it causes air to be sucked in very quickly, which snaps the vocal cord shut and makes the 'hiccup' sound."
What causes hiccups?
Recent research has found that hiccups are likely caused by a little-known reflex arc involving the brain stem.
“There’s a motor pathway, a network of several nerves that lead to this reflex arc. There are phrenic and vagal nerves that then goes into a portion of the brain that regulates all of this,” said Dr. Alexandra Kejner, an otolaryngologist at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine (also known an ear, nose and throat doctor).
Once this reflex arc is activated, a cascade of small events cause hiccups to happen, including a sudden contraction of the diaphragm and closing of the vocal cords.
What exactly causes this reflex arc to start? Some say eating or drinking too much, inhaling an irritant like smoke and drinking alcohol or even stress could be the culprit.
How to stop hiccups?
The cure for hiccups is pretty simple: Increase the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in your bloodstream, both Paul and Kejner said. Kejner suggested breathing into a paper bag for 10 to 20 seconds.
“When your CO2 numbers go up, that triggers your brain to breathe,” said Kejner. “By increasing your C02, it changes your breathing a little bit and can often break that reflex.”
In addition, Paul said you could try drinking a glass of water without taking a breath or jogging in place or do jumping jacks for 30 seconds.
"Usually, one of those will do the trick," she added.
Here's the science behind it: Taking a deep breath in and holding it will keep you from ridding your body of the carbon dioxide waste; each time you breathe into a paper bag, your body is taking back in the CO2 you just exhaled; and a brief bout of exercise works because, as you take in more oxygen and it combines with other nutrients in your body for energy, your body produces more CO2 as a result.
For more prolonged cases of the hiccups, there are medicines available such as chlorpromazine, but you should consult your doctor first beforehand.
Do I need to see a doctor?
“In very rare cases, chronic, long-lasting hiccups can be a sign of something more serious, but before you run out to see your health care provider, give your hiccups time to go away on their own,” said Barb Dehn, a nurse practitioner in San Francisco.
Usually hiccups last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. If your hiccups last for more than 48 hours, or are getting in the way of your ability to breathe, eat, drink or sleep, see your doctor, Dehn advised.
This is an updated version with additional reporting of a previously published article.