See your primary care provider.
So, you have the hiccups. They’re driving you crazy. Someone suggests a remedy – stand on your head, hold your breath or breathe into a paper bag.
Stop rolling your eyes. Some of those goofy-sounding home remedies actually work.
“There’s the old-wives’ tale that if someone suddenly scares you, you’ll snap out of the hiccups. There’s no rigorous scientific study to back that up,” said Omar Khokhar, MD, a gastroenterologist and president of the medical staff at OSF HealthCare St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington, Illinois.
Then, Dr. Khokhar smiled and added, “But …”
But? But what?
“Hiccups are an involuntary retraction of the diaphragm, which helps control your breathing. So, anything you do to reboot your diaphragm isn’t going to hurt anything, and it could help,” he said.
What triggers hiccups
The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle below your lungs. When it contracts, air is drawn into the lungs. When it relaxes, air is pushed out. Usually, those contractions and relaxations occur in an even, controlled rhythm.
When that rhythm is interrupted by an involuntary contraction, your vocal cords suddenly close and produce a hiccup.
“Lots of things can trigger a contraction of your diaphragm: carbonated beverages, alcohol, emotional stress, swallowing air,” Dr. Khokhar said.
“It’s known as aerophagia. You ever try to sip that last bit of soda out of a cup with a straw? You don’t get a lot of soda, but you get a lot of air. That can trigger your diaphragm.”
Why home remedies work
Because the cause of hiccups is relatively simple, most solutions are, too. If you’ve had hiccups, you’ve probably heard of some: swallow fast three times, splash cold water on your face, press your right thumb into your left palm and hold it there for 20 seconds. Or imitate a certain rock star and stick your tongue out as far as you can for 10 seconds.
There are more. All of them are rooted in the same premise.
“Ignore the hiccups, focus on something else and you’ll often snap out of it,” Dr. Khokhar said. “A change of scenery can do it. Walk into another room. Play a game.”
Or even get a friend to scare the hiccups out of you. Same deal.
“And if that doesn’t work, focus on purposeful breathing for a few minutes,” Dr. Khokhar said. “Take deep breaths and maybe do some side stretches. Pay more attention to your breathing – in through your nose, out through your mouth – and realize to some degree you can reassert control over your diaphragm.”
How to prevent hiccups
The best way to deal with hiccups is to prevent them from happening in the first place. A few simple lifestyle changes can help a lot. Think about what, when and how you eat and drink.
“Some people pop six diet sodas a day. If you’re hiccupping, that’s why,” Dr. Khokhar said. “If you drink four coffees before 9 a.m., calm down. You don’t need that much, and it probably hurts you. If you’re having six or seven drinks at night and hiccup, back off the alcohol. If you have a big bowl of pasta and then kick back in the recliner to watch the Cubs game, that’s not a good idea either.”
Which? The pasta, the recliner or the Cubs game? Oh, never mind.
“In general, we eat and drink the wrong way,” Dr. Khokhar said. “We should have a big breakfast, followed by a moderate lunch and moderate dinner. Instead, we flip the script. We eat a big pot of pasta right before going to bed. Your body is not designed for that.
“You should make sure to stay upright for three hours after you eat.”
See a doctor for chronic hiccups
Annoying as they are, hiccups are not dangerous. Most of the time, they last only a few minutes. Sometimes, they will recur with varying degrees of frequency. About the worst thing that can happen is you might develop a sore throat or soreness in your chest.
“However, if you do have hiccups consistently, for more than a few days at a time, that can be a sign of something more sinister,” Dr. Khokhar said.
The list of conditions that can trigger chronic hiccups is large. Here are a few:
- Kidney disease
- Multiple sclerosis
“If your hiccups persist more than two weeks, it could be an early warning sign of something you don’t want to miss. See a primary care provider,” Dr. Khokhar said.