Ask Glenn

Why do we get hiccups, and how do you stop them?

Question of the month for August 2007, asked by Belle

Hiccups are a funny one. We know what they are, we know what they do to our bodies, and for the most part, we know how to get rid of them. But we can't say for sure where they came from, or what they actually do in the body.

What is a hiccup, anyway?

A hiccup is a kind of forced intake of breath, caused by muscle spasms in your chest and throat. There are over 100 causes for hiccups, but the most common is irritation of the stomach or the oesophagus - the food tube that leads to it. The "hic" noise comes when the breath is cut off by the snapping shut of your glottis - which is like a fleshy lid or trapdoor that separates the food and air tubes in your throat.

Upside-down water guzzler

So if everyone gets them, what are they for, exactly?

The truth is, we're not really sure what they're for. As far as we can make out, hiccups don't really do anything for us - they have no known function in the body at all (other than to make us look daft). So some scientists think they might be a kind of malfunction in the nerves that control the breathing muscles and glottis, which happens when the nerves get irritated or damaged.

Hiccups are useless, then?

Maybe, but then again maybe not. It could be that they’re useless to us now, but they once served a purpose in the animals we evolved from. Another idea is that the hiccup evolved to help our four-legged ancestors to swallow food that got stuck in their throats. Where we have the luxury of gravity helping food down, quadrupeds (animals that walk on all fours) have to shift their food horizontally to get it from their mouths to their stomachs. This means it's easier for lumps of food to get stuck in their throats. Some scientists think that lumps lodged like this might press down on a nerve in the throat which triggers the hiccup. The sharp breath in then creates a vaccuum behind the food, and helps the animal suck down the lump. This might explain why dogs (not known for eating their food slowly) seem so prone to hiccups - they "wolf" their food down in big lumps that they have to clear by hiccupping.

Fair enough. But why don't hiccups stop once you stop eating, then?

Well, sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. Most cases of the hiccups are cured (or go away by themselves) inside a few minutes. Others can go on for weeks, or even years. In fact, doctors give names to different classes of hiccups, depending on how long they go on for. Common hiccups are gone within an hour. Persistent hiccups can go on for up to 48 hours, but are usually harmless (although very annoying!). Acute hiccups go on for more than 48 hours, and are usually caused by drugs, but they can also occur naturally. For example, in January 2007, a teenager from Florida named Jennifer Mee hiccupped for five weeks straight, for no known reason! If hiccups go on for longer than two months, they're classed as intractable or diabolic hiccups, and they're usually the sign of a serious illness.

Two months?! That sounds like a nightmare!! Is that the longest they can go on, then?

Well, the world record stands at 68 years, with a guy called Charles Osbourne (again, from the USA), who hiccupped continuously from 1922 to 1990. The poor guy basically had hiccups for life.

Right - I have to know then. How do you get rid of hiccups, really? I heard that if you stand on your head and drink a glass of water…no, wait - you have to eat a raw chilli pepper, right?

For common hiccups, there are literally hundreds of recommended "cures" out there. Some involve eating or drinking things, others tell you to hold your breath. Some tell you to drink a glass of water in a certain way, others to get a friend to distract you. In reality, the ones that actually work (and many don't) do so by helping you get control of your breathing. So it doesn’t really matter what you eat, or how you drink the water - it's just the interruption of your breathing pattern that does the trick. Holding your breath usually works best, since it's the most direct way of controlling your breathing muscles.

What about getting a friend to scare you?

That usually only works if the hiccups are psychosomatic - when you're setting off the jerky contraction in the breathing muscles yourself, but you're not aware that you're doing it. Kind of like imagining each hiccup into existence. It's not always easy to tell when this is happening, but getting someone to distract you can snap you out of it long enough for them to stop. Of course, none of these are likely to work on acute or intractable hiccups. As they’re usually started by drugs or nerve damage, they're often only treatable with more drugs. That said, some researchers have claimed successes treating hiccups with needles, radiation, or even digital rectal massage.

What’s that, then?

A finger up the bum.

What?! I think I’d rather have hiccups!

Maybe so.