The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle lying beneath the lungs that separates the abdomen from the chest cavity. When the diaphragm involuntarily contracts, there is a quick intake of breath accompanied by a near simultaneous snapping shut of the vocal cords, which is what causes the characteristic “hic” sound of the hiccup. A hiccup is also sometimes referred to as singultus or a synchronous diaphragmatic flutter (SDF).
Hiccups occur singly or in groups, and groups of hiccups occur in a regular rhythm. Although hiccups usually last only a few minutes, there are instances in which it can continue for longer periods. If you have hiccups that last longer than 48 hours, you should consult with your physician, as it is may be an indication of an underlying illness. Eighty percent of chronic hiccups are due to a physical cause, and the remaining 20 percent may have psychological origins.
There are a number of different causes of hiccups, including:
- Eating or drinking too quickly, or drinking carbonated beverages, which introduces air into the stomach
- Eating spicy or fatty food, which can irritate the diaphragm, causing it to spasm
- Medications such as those to treat acid reflux and anti-anxiety drugs
- Irritation of the nerves in the head, neck or chest
- Abdominal surgery
- Central nervous system disorders
- Stokes and brain tumors
- Mental disorders
Increasing the level of carbon dioxide in the blood has been shown to inhibit hiccups, thus the origin of some of the hiccup “cures” that are reputed to work. Possible cures for hiccups include the following:
- Hold your breath and count slowly to 10, then gradually exhale
- Breathe into a paper bag or into your cupped hands for a minute
- Sip a glass of water, taking small, quick gulps
- Eat a spoonful of honey or peanut butter
- Gargle with water
Hiccups are usually a passing irritation that makes speaking and eating inconvenient. However, in most cases, they will disappear unaided in just a few minutes.