Why Do We Hiccup?

Medical Mysteries

by Heather Brinson Bruce on April 1, 2012; last featured February 1, 2020
Featured in Answers Magazine

Our bodies can do some pretty embarrassing things, and we can’t always stop them. If only we knew the cause, we might find a remedy. The advice can be quite amusing, especially if you believe evolution explains everything.

It happens to all of us. Men, women, even unborn babies can succumb to these attacks. Synchronous diaphragmatic flutters are no joke. They can, and will, happen to you.

I am referring to that embarrassing phenomenon, hiccups. Everyone gets them, and the worst part (even worse than its intimidating medical name) is that no one seems to agree on what causes the hiccups.

Many possible causes are given for hiccups—and ways to get rid of them. One old wives’ tale says they occur when someone is complaining about you, and the only way to get rid of them is to guess the crank’s name. Another suggestion comes from evolutionists. A recent report claimed that hiccups are muscular processes that helped the first fish to breathe, and there’s not much we can do about them. Do these explanations answer the question, "why do we hiccup?"

Does anyone really know?

The honest answer is no. We know that some answers, like those above, are wrong. But we aren’t sure which one is correct. Acceptable possibilities are out there, but the medical jury’s still out.

What is a hiccup, anyway? And what’s the deal with that funny noise? A hiccup happens when your diaphragm (a muscle that helps you breathe) spasms. You suddenly inhale. Your vocal cords then slam shut, causing the tell-tale “hic” sound. This will happen over and over until your diaphragm cools it.

Since a hiccup is essentially a spasming diaphragm, irritating the diaphragm is a sure-fire way to start the next round. Things like eating too quickly, feeling excited, chewing gum, drinking soda, and laughing can set it off. The diaphragm is a touchy muscle. But what about the times you start hiccupping while quietly sitting, minding your own business?

The diaphragm doesn’t always act on its own. Another player sometimes gets involved—the vagus nerve. This nerve sends the brain regular updates on how your organs are doing. The problem is that the nerve runs down the back of your throat and past your diaphragm. Ah, ha! If your throat gets irritated, it can upset the vagus nerve and start the hiccup cycle.

Other causes may vary. Prolonged hiccups, for instance, can indicate an underlying medical condition; and fetal hiccups could help strengthen a baby’s diaphragm. You get the idea. Instead of worrying about the cause, maybe you should just relax and hope they’ll go away.

Heather Brinson Bruce earned dual degrees in English and chemistry from Clemson University. She writes and edits for Answers magazine as part of the full-time staff.

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