Definition

Hiccups are an episode of repeated, uncontrollable spasms of the diaphragm muscle. This results in an odd, sometimes uncomfortable gasping sensation and sound with each hiccup.

Diaphragm

Diaphragm
© 2009 Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Causes

Everyone experiences hiccups at one time or another. Some unusual medical conditions result in hiccups that persist for long periods of time and may be very difficult to control.

Risk Factors

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.

Risk factors for hiccups include:

  • Sex: men
  • General anesthesia
  • Having surgery
  • Irritation to the nerve that stimulates the diaphragm (phrenic nerve)
  • Certain medical disorders of the central nervous system or kidneys

Phrenic Nerve and Diaphragm

Phrenic Nerve
© 2009 Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • Repeated, uncontrollable spasms of the diaphragm muscle
  • Uncomfortable gasping sensation and sound with each hiccup

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. If you have the hiccups, they will be evident during the exam. If the doctor is concerned that the hiccups may be caused by some underlying illness, you may need tests. These tests might include:

  • Blood tests
  • Liver function tests
  • Chest x-ray —a test that uses radiation to take a picture of structures inside the body
  • CT scan of the head , chest, and/or abdomen —a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of the inside of the body
  • Echocardiogram —a test that uses high-frequency sound waves (ultrasound) to examine the size, shape, and motion of the heart
  • Bronchoscopy —a thin, lighted tube inserted into the bronchial tubes to examine the lungs and air passages
  • Upper endoscopy —a thin, lighted tube inserted down the throat to examine the stomach and intestine

Treatment

Many treatments for hiccups involve stimulating various nerves that may be involved. This can be done by:

  • Eating granulated sugar
  • Valsalva maneuver—holding your breath and bearing down, as you might when having a bowel movement
  • Breathing into a bag
  • Pulling on your tongue
  • Lifting the uvula (the tissue hanging down in the back of your throat) with a spoon
  • Assuming a knees-to-chest position
  • Belching
  • Purposefully gasping
  • Complete relaxation with slow controlled breathing
  • Some drugs may help resolve particularly troublesome hiccups, including:

Prevention

It is not known why some people get hiccups and others don't. There are no sure ways to prevent developing this condition. However, if you're prone to hiccups, you might want to avoid:

  • Overfilling your stomach
  • Carbonated beverages
  • Sudden changes in temperature
  • Alcohol
  • Overexcitement (including stress, intense emotion, heavy laughing, or crying)