Sometimes they’re funny. Sometimes they’re annoying or even frustrating. They can disrupt you at the most inconvenient times. No, I’m not talking about your family members—good guess, though! I’m talking about hiccups.
What are hiccups? And are there scientific reasons behind why we get them?
The world’s longest bout of hiccups
According to the Guinness World Records book, the record for the longest bout of hiccups goes to Charles Osborne. He had the hiccups for 68 years, from 1922 to 1990, with an estimated 430 million hiccups. Christopher Sands experienced something like 10 million hiccups over 27 months from 2007 to 2009. He hiccupped every two seconds for 12 hours a day.
Folklore tells us that getting the hiccups means someone is talking about you or missing you. If you go through a list of your friends in your head, your hiccups will stop when you get to the memory of the friend who is the culprit. In medieval times, hiccups were thought to be caused by elves.
The mechanics of hiccups
Your diaphragm, the large muscle that sits just below your lungs and above your stomach, helps you breathe. It moves upward to force air out of your lungs and downward to pull air in. Even though we don’t have to think about it each time—although we can direct it if we want to: breathe in, breathe out—our brain signals our diaphragm to make these movements.
Sometimes our brain signals our diaphragm to move downward more forcefully than normal. This sharp, involuntary muscle contraction causes air to get sucked into the back of your throat. The area of your throat near your vocal cords then snaps closed, thanks to this change in pressure, creating a “hic” sound.
Why do we hiccup?
We understand the mechanics of hiccups—they’re an involuntary reflex. But why does our brain send a signal to create that reflex in the first place? Scientists have tried to pin down a clear reason, but so far, we still don’t know.
Although we don’t know exactly why our brains signal us to hiccup, we do know that many things trigger the reflex. Research has seen hiccups triggered by trauma (like head injuries), tumors or goiters, infections (including meningitis and encephalitis), abdominal distension, and issues with the central nervous system like multiple sclerosis. Irritations like heartburn, spicy food, gastritis, reflux, and ulcers have also been linked to hiccups. One person’s hiccups were even caused by a hair brushing against their tympanic membrane, the membrane that vibrates in response to sound waves and enables us to hear.
We also know of a few behaviors that can lead to hiccups: smoking cigarettes, putting ourselves through a sudden change in temperature, experiencing some sort of heightened emotion like excitement or stress, or overfilling our stomachs (with food, alcohol or even air).
Nonstop hiccupping can be seriously inconvenient, especially if it affects your ability to eat, sleep, or communicate. Persistent hiccups can be a sign of a health problem, whether it be an ear infection, kidney failure, laryngitis, or a hernia. In the case of Christopher Sands and his 10 million hiccups, he was found to have a brain tumor that pushed on the phrenic nerve—that’s the nerve tasked with signaling the hiccup reflex. Once he had surgery to remove the tumor, his hiccups stopped.