A hiccup is basically a spasm that happens involuntarily in the diaphragm, which is a muscle that rests in between our chest and abdomen.
If you’re someone who never gets the hiccups, you’re lucky. For those of us who regularly eat our food too fast or just seem to get the hiccups randomly throughout the day, it can be one of the most annoying things in the world--especially when you’re in a setting where you need to be quiet. They might not seem like a big deal (because usually, they aren’t), but having hiccups for several hours or getting them regularly and often are both signs that something might not be right.
But first, let’s just get a brief understanding of hiccups and why we even get them in the first place. A hiccup is basically a spasm that happens involuntarily in the diaphragm, which is a muscle that rests in between our chest and abdomen. When the diaphragm becomes irritated, it can cause irregular muscle movements that result in a sudden closure of the glottis, a slit-like opening that sits between your vocal cords and voice box.
“You quickly swallow air and your voice box shuts, and that’s what causes that hiccupping sound,” says gastroenterologist at NYU and medical editor at Health Magazine, Dr. Roshini Rajapaksa. Irritating the diaphragm is much easier than you might think. All it takes is something little, like eating a large meal too fast, sudden changes in temperature, carbonation in beer and soda, or as Rajapaksa says, “sometimes they can come out of the blue.”
Sickness can also cause hiccups because the vagus nerve and phrenic nerves travel from your sinuses down your diaphragm. This means you’re more likely to get the hiccups if you have a sore throat or an ear infection.
A typical case of hiccups will only last a short while, from a few minutes to a few hours. If your hiccups last for more than two days, you have ‘persistent hiccups.’ If your hiccups have lasted for more than 30 days, you have ‘intractable hiccups.’ Both of these conditions can be exhausting, and in severe cases have been seen to cause nerve damage. While hiccups typically stem from an irritated diaphragm, they could potentially be indicative of something much worse.
Acid reflux, tumors in the neck or goiter, heart problems, and liver or kidney failure are all things that may be causing hiccups, which is why it is so important to get your hiccups checked out if they become a regular problem in your life.
“There’s also an area of the brain involved with the hiccup reflex, so rarely a condition in the brain, like an infection or a mass, can cause them, too,” says Rajapaksa.