Hiccups are an annoying, if ultimately harmless, facet of life.* (At least, they are most of the time, for most people – but more on that later.)
These involuntary bursts of respiratory action tend to take place after we’ve rushed down a meal or gulped down a drink too hastily and usually disappear of their own accord within a few minutes or hours.
As WebMD explains, the actual mechanism behind hiccups starts in your diaphragm, a muscle located between the lungs and the stomach. When we breathe in or inhale, the diaphragm pulls down, allowing air to enter the lungs. When we breathe out or exhale, it relaxes so that the air exits the lungs and then the body through the nose and mouth. Only when we hiccup, an irritation has caused the diaphragm to spasm. This forces the larynx (or voice box) to contract, which in turn closes the glottis (or vocal cords), creating that distinctive "hic" sound.
The actual trigger, however, may be one of several things, including stress, nervousness, some medications, sudden changes in air temperature, and air swallowing (whether that is from chewing gum, drinking carbonated beverages, or inhaling your dinner).
While often the easiest thing to do is to wait it out, holding your breath or breathing into a paper bag may help stop hiccups. This is because of a build-up of CO2 in the lungs, which calms the diaphragm. Unfortunately, while old wives' tales will have you attempting to drink water backwards or jump scare your friends, there's no solid scientific proof to show that either of these two techniques work. That said, if you find you have a cure that works for you, it works for you – so, keep going.
Tyler Cymet, head of medical education at the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, spent five-years studying 54 hiccuping hospital patients but found no foolproof way to "cure" the hiccups.
"I think the jury is in that nothing works: It starts and stops on its own, and that's about it," he told the Guardian. Though this hasn't stopped people experimenting with rectal massages and male ejaculation.
However, if you find you have been hiccuping for more than 48 hours straight, it might be a good time to book an appointment with the doctor. While most bouts of hiccups are totally harmless, it is possible that it is a symptom of a far more serious problem. For example, meningitis, stroke, traumatic brain injury, or a tumor.
There is also such a thing as a chronic hiccup, a rare but awful-sounding disease involving weeks, years, or even decades-worth of non-stop hiccupping. Probably the worst case on record is the 68-year-old bout suffered by Charles Osborne (1894-1991), who reportedly started hiccuping in 1922 when he was weighing a hog. It didn't stop until 1990 and he died a year later.
So next time you start hiccuping, be glad this isn't you.
*Unless you are this guy. Then, your persistent hiccups are the result of an undiagnosed tumor. Moral of the story – if your hiccups don’t disappear on their own, get them checked out.