If your hiccups are chronic, they may be more than a temporary annoyance. Find out about the underlying medical conditions that may be causing them.
Hiccups can be frustrating, especially if they occur for what seems like no apparent reason. They’re usually temporary, though, and resolve on their own in a few minutes. But, while we typically think of hiccups as annoying but not serious, that might not always be the case. Read on to learn more about hiccups, what you can do about them and when you should see a doctor.
What happens when you hiccup
The physiological process of hiccupping is actually straightforward. It occurs when your diaphragm, the muscle at the base of your lungs that is essential for breathing, makes an involuntary movement. When this happens, your vocal cords quickly close, which in turn causes the telltale “hic” sound.
“We commonly have these involuntary spasms of the diaphragm when we eat or drink too fast, drink alcohol or carbonated beverages, or while we’re chewing gum,” says Renee M. Poole, MD, MMM, a family medicine physician at Keck Medicine of USC and clinical assistant professor of family medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. Other causes can include eating something hot or spicy, a bloated stomach, abdominal surgery, certain medications or even just feeling nervous.
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Tried-and-true home remedies
The first thing we usually turn to when it comes to alleviating hiccups are home remedies, and sometimes they actually work. “Holding your breath, breathing into a paper bag, sucking on hard candies or swallowing peanut butter may help,” Poole says.
Holding your breath or breathing into a paper bag raises the content of carbon dioxide in the blood, and in doing so, quells hiccups. Also, anything that may stimulate the vagus nerve (which connects the brain to the stomach), such as quickly drinking water, lightly pulling on your tongue or gently rubbing your eyes, may do the trick.
When hiccups may be more than an annoyance
Chronic hiccups, however, may be symptomatic of other health conditions. “If your hiccups last more than 48 hours, they could be a sign of an underlying cause, and you should seek medical attention,” Poole says. “Chronic hiccups are associated with more than 100 underlying disorders, including alcoholism, brain stem tumors, vascular lesions and Parkinson’s disease. Conditions that can irritate the diaphragm, such as tumors, an enlarged spleen or liver, pericarditis and peritonitis, can also cause chronic hiccups. The underlying cause will determine the treatment options.”
Chronic hiccups can also impact your quality of life if they interrupt your sleeping and eating patterns. You may experience weight loss, exhaustion and dehydration. Other side effects include gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD, and irregular heartbeat.
A variety of treatment options for chronic hiccups
Since chronic hiccup cases can persist for more than a month, it’s important to visit a doctor sooner rather than later. Persistent hiccups can be treated with a nerve blockade, medications such as chlorpromazine or, in rare cases, surgery. “Acupuncture is also a complementary treatment option,” Poole adds.
If you do experience chronic hiccups, a visit to your doctor will help you get to the bottom of what’s causing them in the first place and find an appropriate treatment to make you feel more comfortable.
by Deanna Pai