The exact cause of hiccups is still a mystery, but here's what we know about a cure

  • No one knows exactly what causes hiccups, but we do know what they are.
  • Hiccups happen when an involuntary spasm in the diaphragm causes the vocal chords to snap shut, which makes that hiccup sound.
  • The best hiccups cure might simply be distracting a person for a few minutes until they go away.

Everyone grows up with their own family hiccups cure. There's trying to scare the hiccup victim, holding one's breath, or drinking a glass of water upside-down from the far side of the glass.

As a kid, my family used the water-drinking technique, which was excellent at making a mess and seemed to be about as good as any other hiccups treatment out there. And actually, that might be the case.

That's because there's no single science-backed hiccups treatment, according to Gregory Levitin, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Health System.

"We don't understand why hiccups come and why they go," Levitin said. "But anything that has a distracting quality would be a positive experience," especially if that distraction provides some other form of stimulation.

While scientists don't know the true cause or best treatment for hiccups, they do know what they are. And there are a few strategies Levitin and other otolayngologists — ear, nose, and throat doctors — recommend for getting hiccups to end and for preventing them in the first place.

The mysterious cause of hiccups

A "hiccup" (also spelled hiccough) is the sound we make when we try to breathe in but an involuntary diaphragm spasm causes the vocal chords to snap shut. Doctors technically call this "singultus," a Latin term that refers to sobbing or gasping while sobbing.

Anything that extends the diaphragm or increases distension in the stomach could stimulate a nerve that might cause involuntary spasms, according to Levitin. That includes behaviors like overeating, eating too quickly, or drinking in a way that fills the stomach with air (like consuming carbonated drinks).

Babies tend to feed more often than adults and swallow more air when they do, whether they eat from a bottle or breast, so that could explain why they get hiccups more frequently.

But what's key is that hiccups stem from an involuntary contraction, a spasm like the ones you might get in a muscle after working out.

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ER or urgent care? Always head to the ER for chest pain, severe bleeding, difficulty breathing, a neurological issue such as a seizure, or a serious head trauma with loss of consciousness. Here are the things ER doctors wish they could tell you.

We can see you early

The next time your regular doctor says it will be months before you can get an appointment, we may be able to help. Many urgent care centers offer STD tests, school and sports physicals, adult vaccinations, Pap smears, skin allergy treatments, and more. Learn the harmful habits doctors really wish you would stop doing.

Some call us lazy

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Coming here by mistake can be costly 

Sorry, you won’t save money if you come here when you really need to go to the ER. If we transfer you by ambulance to the hospital, you may be responsible for co-pays at both places, plus the ambulance ride, which can double your fee.

If you’re paying cash, don’t be afraid to negotiate on price 

We may be able to reduce your bill, but there has to be a reason. Some urgent care centers even have special cards you can purchase that guarantee you a discount at every single visit. Here are some more simple ways you can reduce your hospital costs.

All urgent care centers are not created equal

Some can handle only basic ailments: sore throats, simple wounds, colds, and coughs; they don’t have an X-ray machine or a lab. Others can take on diagnoses and tests.

Our free samples could cost you later

We’re happy to give you a sample of the latest drug for your treatment. But that tends to be the most expensive. Ask for a less pricey but equally effective option so you can refill your prescription with ease. Here are some more secrets hospitals won't tell you, but every patient needs to know.

Not all our suggestions are good ideas

If I suggest a specific test or procedure, ask whether you really need it and what it will cost. To protect us from potential lawsuits, our clinic guidelines may require us to suggest various treatments even when they’re not really needed.

Make a reservation

To save time, call to see if you can get on the waiting list before you come. Some centers will send you a text message 30 minutes before someone can see you. Learn some more tips that will help you make the most of your next doctor's appointment.

Very few of our doctors start in urgent care

Many are burned-out ER or primary care doctors looking for less stress and easier hours.

We are desperate to please

Because we’re partially judged by patient-satisfaction scores, we’re under pressure to please. So if you want a steroid shot or an antibiotic for your cold, we’ll probably give it to you, even if it’s not necessary. The one thing we’re stingy about? Narcotic pain medications, since we know drug dealers can sell them. Learn the secrets your pharmacist won't tell you.

Even if there’s a doctor on-site, you may never see him or her

Most urgent care centers are staffed with physician assistants and nurse-practitioners; typically, a doctor is consulted for complicated cases. Here are the secrets nurses wish they could tell you.

We don’t have time to sanitize our waiting room after every patient

If you’re coming in at the height of flu season, stay safe by asking for a mask and using the hand sanitizer we have out. Here are some more etiquette rules you should always follow while visiting the hospital.


A hiccups cure

Though common, hiccups are fortunately an infrequent and self-limiting event for most people, according to Levitin.

Still, there are a few things he suggests for people who get the hiccups frequently.

"I tell people to take deep breaths and to hold the breaths in between," he said. If the problem is caused by excess air in the stomach, expanding the abdomen may move that air around, allowing some to escape. In a few cases, Levitin said he might try massaging the base of the neck where the phrenic nerve, which stimulates the diaphragm, is located.

Sometimes, these methods work — but then again, many supposed hiccup cures seem to work occasionally.

"If you do any of these things, it really just passes the time for a few minutes," Levitin said.

In rare cases, a case of hiccups can persist for months or even years. In those situations, doctors can try more serious interventions.

While there are no medications for hiccups themselves, side effects of other medications might help. Doctors have tried giving people a muscle relaxer or a drug that helps move food through the stomach. Injecting an anesthetic into the phrenic nerve might provide temporary relief, according to Levitin, though probably only for a few hours. In very severe cases, new options might include battery-powered implants that could stimulate the phrenic nerve.

For those patients with real hiccups issues, Levitin said alternative therapies may also provide assistance. Various forms of breath work might help, as could meditation or acupuncture.

But when it comes to final answers to the questions of where hiccups come from or how to make them go away, we still don't know.

"In the end, we all suffer from the human condition," Levitin said.

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