They’re a nuisance and always seem to come at the most inconvenient times, but scientists may have discovered a purpose to hiccups.
The researchers, from University College London, looked at incidents of hiccups in newborns and observed that each one triggered a large wave of brain activity. Hiccups may be essential to the baby’s development, they concluded helping the brain learn to monitor and regulate breathing.
“Our findings have prompted us to wonder whether hiccups in adults, which appear to be mainly a nuisance, may in fact [be] a vestigial reflex, left over from infancy when it had an important function,” the study’s lead author, research associate Kimberley Whitehead, commented.
So is there really no purpose to them, now we’re all grown up? And how do we make them stop? Dr Roger Henderson, UK medical director of Liva Healthcare, says hiccups (or hiccoughs, as they’re sometimes called) are a reflex action we cannot control – and notes no real function to them for adults.
“They are caused by a sudden, involuntary contraction of the diaphragm muscle just below the lungs,” he tells HuffPost UK. “This then triggers the top of the windpipe (the glottis) to close, which causes the typical ‘hic’ sound everyone has heard.”
People get short bouts of hiccups occasionally, he says, usually starting and stopping for no apparent reason. “Possible trigger factors include acute stress and excitement, overeating, drinking fizzy drinks too quickly, eating too fast, smoking and drinking alcohol, and sudden changes in temperature,” he adds.
Persistent hiccups – defined as those that last more than 48 hours – are rare but can cause emotional and physical distress in sufferers. “Possible causes for chronic hiccups include acid reflux, where acid spills into the gullet from the stomach, sometimes due to a hiatus hernia, strong painkillers, steroids and tranquillisers, and diabetes,” Dr Henderson explains.
Unfortunately there is no golden rule for curing hiccups, but Dr Henderson says the majority of cases clear by themselves within a few minutes – as many of us know.
What about the other solutions people suggest – like drinking water backwards? “There are a great many anecdotal and popular home remedies that are said to cure hiccups but these have little basis in fact,” he says.
“Examples of these include holding your breath for as long as you can, sipping iced water, sucking a lemon, and holding your breath when pushing out as if you are straining on the toilet.” Even so, they could be worth a try.
If you’re concerned about regular chronic hiccups, it’s best to speak to your GP – but for the rest of us, it might be a case of *hic* just waiting for them to pass.