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Hiccups are repetitive, uncontrollable contractions of the diaphragm muscle. Your diaphragm is the muscle just below your lungs. It marks the boundary between your chest and abdomen. The diaphragm regulates breathing. When your diaphragm contracts, your lungs take in oxygen. When your diaphragm relaxes, your lungs release carbon dioxide.
The diaphragm contracting out of rhythm causes hiccups. Each spasm of the diaphragm makes the larynx and vocal cords close suddenly. This results in a sudden rush of air into the lungs. Your body reacts with a gasp or chirp, creating the sound characteristic of hiccups.
Singultus is the medical term for hiccups.
There is no way to anticipate hiccups. With each spasm, there usually is a slight tightening of the chest or throat prior to your making the distinctive hiccup sound.
Most cases of hiccups start and end abruptly, for no discernable reason. Episodes generally last only a few minutes. Hiccups that last longer than 48 hours are considered persistent. Hiccups that last longer than two months are considered intractable, or difficult to manage.
Numerous causes of hiccups have been identified. However, there is no definitive list of triggers. Hiccups often come and go for no apparent reason.
Possible common causes of short-term hiccups include:
Hiccups that last longer than 48 hours are categorized by the type of irritant that caused the episode.
The majority of persistent hiccups are caused by injury or irritation to either the vagus or phrenic nerve. The vagus and phrenic nerves control the movement of your diaphragm. These nerves may be affected by:
Other causes of hiccups may involve the central nervous system (CNS). The CNS consists of the brain and spinal cord. If the CNS is damaged, your body may lose the ability to control hiccups. CNS damage that may lead to persistent hiccups includes:
Hiccups that last for longer periods also can be caused by:
Sometimes, a medical procedure can accidentally cause you to develop long-term hiccups. They can be caused by procedures used to treat or diagnose other conditions, including:
Hiccups can occur at any age. They can even occur while a fetus is still in the mother’s womb. However, there are several factors that can increase your likelihood of developing hiccups.
You may be more susceptible if you:
Most hiccups are not an emergency. However a prolonged episode can be uncomfortable and disruptive to daily life. Contact your physician if you have hiccups that last longer than two days. Your doctor can determine the severity of your hiccups in relation to your overall health and other conditions.
There are numerous options for treating hiccups. Typically, a short-term case of hiccups will take care of itself. However, the discomfort may make waiting out hiccups unbearable if they last longer than a few minutes.
Although none of these have been proven to stop hiccups, the following potential treatments for hiccups can be tried at home:
If you still have hiccups after 48 hours, talk to your doctor. Your physician may attempt gastric lavage (stomach pumping) or carotid sinus massage (rubbing the main carotid artery in the neck).
If the cause of your hiccups is unclear, your physician may recommend tests. These can help detect any underlying disease or condition. The following tests may be useful in determining the cause of persistent or intractable hiccups:
Treating any underlying causes of your hiccups will usually make them go away. If persistent hiccups have no obvious cause, there are several anti-hiccup medications that may be prescribed. The more commonly used drugs include:
There are also more invasive options, which can be used to end extreme cases of hiccups. They include:
A long-term episode of hiccups can be uncomfortable and even harmful to your health. If left untreated, prolonged hiccups can disturb your sleeping and eating patterns, leading to:
There is no proven method for preventing hiccups. However, if you experience hiccups frequently, you can try to reduce your exposure to known triggers.
The following may help reduce your susceptibility to hiccups:
Written by: Anna Giorgi
Medically reviewed on: Sep 26, 2015: Steven Kim, MD
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