All a minor inconvenience needs to become major is time. That rock in your shoe is bothersome at first. But after 5 miles, you’ll be walking with a limp. The same can be said for hiccups. A sudden bout of hiccups during a first-date conversation can kill the vibe. But “chronic” hiccups can be a life-changing issue.
Cases of chronic hiccups are extremely rare and can have many causes. In order to better understand the science behind hiccups, we spoke with Lloyd Perino, MD, a gastroenterologist at Banner Health Clinic in Arizona.
What is a hiccup?
“Your hiccups are a result of spasms causing your diaphragm to contract involuntarily,” said Dr. Perino. “The phrenic nerve controls much of your diaphragm’s motion, which is the primary muscle in charge of your breathing.”
“In almost every case, your hiccups are caused by a benign, insignificant reaction in your body. They may create some social stress or make it hard to fall asleep, but that’s the extent.” In some rare cases, your hiccups may be caused by food allergies, tympanic membrane (eardrum) irritation or a tumor near the phrenic nerve. But these are not the norm.
What are Chronic Hiccups?
While a typical bout of hiccups will come and go in a matter of minutes, chronic hiccups can stay with people for days or even weeks. The cause of the condition can vary from person to person. Dr Perino noted that he sees maybe one case per year of hiccups lasting 24 hours or more. He said, “it’s uncommon that these hiccups are a sign of anything concerning, but I recommend a CT scan of the chest to look for anything that might affect the phrenic nerve.”
A few hiccups here and there aren’t dangerous, we’ve all had them. But in chronic cases, they can cause direct and indirect damage over time. For example:
- Sleep deprivation
- Weight loss
- Irregular heartbeat
- Gastroesophageal reflux
How are Chronic Hiccups Treated?
The cause behind chronic hiccups varies greatly from person to person. It’s a very rare condition that could be associated with other serious issues such as gastrointestinal diseases, liver abnormalities, brain or psychological concerns, metabolic disorders or many others. The exact underlying cause could be none of these issues, something totally different or several of the issues at once. Regardless, you and your doctor will work to find a treatment that is centered around the underlying cause, while softening symptoms to make you more comfortable. In many cases, prescribed medication can ease the burden of the hiccups while you investigate for any deeper issues.
Tips to Get Rid of Non-Chronic Hiccups
For most of the world, chronic hiccups won’t ever be a problem. We asked Dr. Perino to offer his perspective on familiar home remedies for a common case of hiccups. “It’s fair to try any home remedy,” Dr. Perino replied. “Although, I’ve never found holding one’s breath to be especially successful, nor have I found scaring someone to be a reliable cure. For some, I’ve recommended 10 small gulps of fluid between hiccups. This can help if the hiccups are esophageal related.”
If you are experiencing painful or persistent bouts of hiccups lasting up to 24 hours, schedule a visit with a Banner Health expert.