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What Causes Hiccups?

Instructor: Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has taught high school and college biology and has a master's degree in cancer biology.

There are many different possible causes of hiccups that will be discussed in this lesson. We will look at how they cause the hiccups and whether they cause short-term or long-term hiccups.

What Are Hiccups?

You are enjoying an evening at home not doing much. Perhaps you are laughing at your favorite tv show or singing one of your favorite songs when out of nowhere you make this strange sound and the upper part of your body kind of jumps. You have the hiccups. Hiccups are short inhalations of air that are not consciously controlled.

Hiccups are due to spasms in the diaphragm
Diagram of the diaphragm

They occur due to a spasm in the diaphragm. You remember the diaphragm. It is the muscle that separates the chest and abdominal cavities and plays an intricate role in inhaling and exhaling. The diaphragm contracts to make you inhale and relaxes to cause you to exhale. Hiccups occur when the diaphragm doesn't fully contract which leads to only a small amount of air being inhaled. It also causes the vocal cords in the throat to flap together to shut which is what gives that weird sound when you hiccup.

Now what most people want to know is what causes the hiccups to occur. We just got the literal answer which is that hiccups are due to spasms of the diaphragm. There must be something that causes the diaphragm to have a spasm though. After all, the diaphragm doesn't spend most of its time having spasms.

Causes of Short-Term Hiccups

If you are like the majority of the population, you may have heard things such as 'hiccups happen when you're growing' or 'hiccups mean you're nervous'. These aren't the actual causes of the spasms, but they aren't completely far off either.

Growing doesn't cause hiccups, but not doing what causes us to grow the proper way can cause hiccups. If you eat or drink too fast or too much, then a spasm may occur in the diaphragm. One possible reason for this is the combination of the temperature of the food or drink along with how quickly it is consumed. Our bodies are set at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Consuming something with a temperature much hotter or much colder than that, especially quickly, could cause spasms in the diaphragm.

Drinking ice cold sodas can cause hiccups
Picture of soda on ice

Drinking carbonated drinks such as sodas or beer may also lead to a short run of the hiccups. Carbonation tends to cause a build-up of gas that may irritate the diaphragm causing it to spasm. The likelihood of getting the hiccups due to drinking carbonated drinks increases if they are very cold when consumed.

Some emotional changes such as being stressed or excited may cause the hiccups. This is largely due to the fact that emotional changes can lead to hyperventilation which puts more air in the respiratory tract than usual and can cause the diaphragm to spasm.

Causes of Long-Term Hiccups

The hiccups can often become annoying, but they are usually a harmless source of laughter that only last for a few minutes to a couple of days. There are some cases when the hiccups last much longer and they are normally caused by a much bigger health issue or condition. This is very rare, but it does occur.

The nicotine in cigarettes can cause hiccups
Picture of a cigarette

Certain medicines or chemicals are linked to the hiccups as well. Medicines that are used to treat mental disorders or gastrointestinal problems are linked to hiccups. These may include Valium and Ondansetron. Nicotine and alcohol are chemicals that are known to cause hiccups as well. These medicines and chemicals probably cause the hiccups because they cause stomach acid to move backwards into the esophagus. The acid irritates the esophagus causing inflammation and spasms which may also cause spasms in the diaphragm since the esophagus runs through the diaphragm.

One cause of long-term hiccups is the irritation of vagus or phrenic nerves that control the diaphragm. This nerve irritation could be due to many different reasons, but more often than not, it's due to a disease or condition that irritates the nerve. This may include anything from a sore throat to thyroid conditions to tumors in the neck to previous abdominal surgeries.

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