What Triggers Hiccups? Are They Serious?

When a person has involuntary diaphragm contractions that happen suddenly, they are called hiccups. When this muscle contracts like this, the vocal cord openings snap shut, stopping the airflow, which creates the hiccupping sound. There are times that this can be associated with ailments such as pneumonia, or if there is a buildup of harmful substances such as blood issues from kidney failure. Hiccups aren’t serious. In very rare cases, they can cause health issues such as trouble eating and sleeping or speech changes.

What Causes Hiccups? 

There are many different reasons identified for causing hiccups. Unfortunately, there isn’t a definitive reason that a person can get the hiccups. In fact, there seems to be no apparent reason that hiccups can come and go.

  • Spicy foods you eat
  • Eating too much
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Carbonated beverages like pop
  • A quick change in the temperature
  • Swallowing air when chewing
  • Emotional stress or excitement
  • Gulping air or aerophagia

If hiccups last longer than 48 hours, they are something serious. Most persistent hiccups are from irritation or injury to the phrenic or vagus nerve. These nerves are what control movement of the diaphragm and can also be affected by:

  • Throat soreness or irritation
  • Eardrum trouble, such as foreign objects
  • Large thyroid gland or goiter
  • Reflux such as stomach acid travelling up into the esophagus
  • Esophagus tumor or cyst

Central nervous system or CNS, which consists of the brain and spinal cord, may also be at the root of what causes hiccups. If this area has been damaged, you may not be able to control hiccups. Some damage that could lead to ongoing hiccups includes:

  • MS or multiple sclerosis
  • Stroke
  • Encephalitis and meningitis, which causes brain swelling
  • Tumors
  • Head and brain trauma
  • Hydrocephalus or fluid on the brain
  • Brain infections such as neurosyphilis

Other causes of long-lasting hiccups can be:

  • Tobacco use
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Surgery and anesthesia recovery
  • Some drugs such as steroids, barbiturates and tranquilizers
  • Electrolyte trouble
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney trouble
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Chemo and other cancer treatments
  • Arteriovenous malformation, when the veins and arteries are tangled in the brain

There are some medical procedures that can make you wonder what causes hiccups. These procedures may be used for diagnosing or treating some conditions such as:

  • Catheters for heart muscle access
  • Using a stent for esophageal openings
  • Tracheostomy, or when an opening is cut into the neck to allow breathing past something
  • When instruments help look inside the lungs such as with a bronchoscopy

Risk Factors for Hiccups

Anyone of any age can get the hiccups. There are even mothers who feel their unborn babies bouncing with the hiccups. There are some factors that are known to increase your risk of hiccups.

You may have increased susceptibility if:

  • You are a man.
  • You have intense emotional and mental responses such as excitement and anxiety.
  • You were put under for surgery.
  • You have had surgery, particularly abdominal surgery.

Test to Find the Cause If You Have Persistent Hiccups

What causes hiccups? You already knew it. If hiccups last less than 48 hours, there usually isn’t a need for medical advice, because they will stop on their own. If they last longer, you need to visit a doctor. Once your doctor has asked you a few questions about when your hiccups started and how often you’ve been having them, they will likely give you a physical and neurological exam. They will check:

  • Balance
  • Reflexes
  • Coordination
  • Sense of touch
  • Muscle tone
  • Eyesight
  • Muscle strength

If your physician thinks there may be an underlying cause, then the following diagnostics will be ordered:

  • Imaging tests checking for anatomical abnormalities. This could be an MRI, CT scan or an X-ray.
  • Blood tests for diabetes, infections, or kidney disease
  • Endoscopy, using a small camera to check down the esophagus or wind pipe
  • ECG, test to check for conditions related to the heart

How to Get Rid of Hiccups

It’s important to remember that most cases of hiccups won’t need medical attention, but there are medical treatments available if prolonged hiccups become a problem.

Self-Help Resolutions

There are some things you can try on your own to help with your hiccups, such as:

  • Holding your breath for a few moments
  • Sipping ice water
  • Biting down on a lemon
  • A spoonful of sugar
  • A spoonful of vinegar
  • Breathing in and out with a paper bag
  • Holding your knees to your chest
  • Leaning forward and putting pressure on your chest

Some people find these techniques solve the problem but there is no medical proof that they are effective.

Treatments for Long-Lasting Hiccups

If there is a health condition causing your hiccups, there may be other treatments needed to resolve the problem. Those with GORD or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease may get a medication which helps reduce their stomach acid and therefore hiccups.

There are instances where persistent hiccups may mean you need to see a specialist. When treatments have failed and underlying causes can’t be found, your specialist may treat the hiccups with medication. Some medications they may prescribe include:

  • Haloperidol
  • Chlorpromazine
  • Baclofen
  • Gabapentin
  • Metoclopramide

When these meds are prescribed, they are usually for a few weeks. Your doctor may increase your dose to get your hiccups under control. The dose can be slowly reduced when it is time to stop taking the medication.

If you get the hiccups while your medicine is reduced or when the treatment stops, your doctor may increase the dose again or put you back on treatment.

Your doctor may suggest alternative medicine first to help cure your hiccups. It is important to note that you should ask your doctor about the various side effects any of your medications will have.

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