What’s Happening In Your Body When You Get The Hiccups

what are hiccups


They seem to pop up out of nowhere — when we’re hanging at happy hour, relaxing after a big meal or settling in after a long day. We’re talking about the hiccups, the body’s involuntary need to take gasping gulps of air that make us sound like drunk men wandering down the street. They’re sometimes embarrassing, always uncomfortable and never completely understood.

So let’s change that last one. Why do we hiccup exactly?

First things first, hiccups are what medical professionals would describe as short bursts of inspiratory activity, meaning they occur as we inhale as opposed to when we exhale. When the stomach is distended, it pushes into the diaphragm (your “breathing muscle”) and the intercostal muscles that sit in between the ribs just below the lungs. The diaphragm muscles then spasm sharply, forcing us to inhale gasps of breath outside of our normal breathing patterns.

Typically, we get the hiccups after eating or drinking too quickly, since those are both sure-fire ways to push the stomach beyond its normal physical boundaries. Fizzy drinks and alcohol can also catalyze a bout of the hiccups. Even chewing gum or sucking on candy that leads to the unintentional swallowing of air can be to blame.

what are hiccups

Unsplash/Maria Victoria Heredia

But those aren’t the only possibilities. Hiccups can also stem from a disturbance in the neural pathway between the brain and the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. This connection is typically the culprit when our hiccups seem connected to a dramatic shift in weather temperature or a physical reaction to an emotional exchange with another person.

So long as they’re short-lived, hiccups don’t pose a health risk. They’re just distracting AF, especially if the diaphragm is contracting really hard. (Those are the hiccups that hurt.) And everyone has their own way of remedying the situation sooner rather than just letting it play out — eating a spoonful of peanut butter, drinking water upside down, holding your breath, you name it. Hey, whatever works.

The only time you should feel concerned about your involuntary gasping is if it happens frequently and sticks around for a while. This pattern can signify that there’s an issue with the brain-to-diaphragm neural pathway or that there’s a problem with a structure near the diaphragm or chest wall. If you find that your hiccups are severe enough to make regular eating, breathing and sleeping nearly impossible (or last for more than two days), make an appointment with your doctor to check things out.

So there you have it, folks. That powerful diaphragm muscle clearly has a mind of its own when it’s agitated, and all we can really do is slow down, take a deep breath and try not to piss it off.


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