"Hiccups" redirects here. For other uses, see Hiccup (disambiguation).
Classification and external resources
Specialty Otorhinolaryngology
ICD-10 R06.6
ICD-9-CM 786.8
DiseasesDB 5887
MedlinePlus 003068
eMedicine emerg/252
Patient UK Hiccup
MeSH D006606

A hiccup (/ˈhɪkəpˌˈhɪkʌp/ HIK-əp, HIK-up; also spelled hiccough) is an involuntary contraction (myoclonic jerk) of the diaphragm that may repeat several times per minute. In medicine, it is known as synchronous diaphragmatic flutter (SDF), or singultus, Latin for the act of catching one's breath while sobbing.[1] The hiccup is an involuntary action involving a reflex arc.[1] Once triggered, the reflex causes a strong contraction of the diaphragm followed about 0.25 second later by closure of the vocal cords, which results in the classic "hic" sound.

Hiccups may occur individually, or they may occur in bouts. The rhythm of the hiccup, or the time between hiccups, tends to be relatively constant.

A bout of hiccups, in general, resolves itself without intervention, although many home remedies are often used to attempt to shorten the duration.[2] Medical treatment is occasionally necessary in cases of chronic hiccups.

Signs and symptoms

Hiccup sound
The sound of a human hiccup

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Pathophysiological causes

Hiccups may be triggered by a number of common human conditions. In rare cases, they can be a sign of serious medical problems.

Pre-phrenic nucleus irritation of medulla

CNS disorders

Nerve damage

Evolutionary causes

Clearance of air from stomach

A recent explanation by Howes in 2012 suggests that hiccups may have evolved along with other reflexes developed in mammals that allow them to coordinate suckling milk and breathing.[6] Hiccups are only found in mammals, and are most common in infants, becoming rarer as mammals age. This may suggest that they evolved to allow air trapped in the stomach of suckling infants to escape, allowing more milk to be ingested. The hypothesis suggests that the air bubble in the stomach stimulates the sensory limb of the reflex at receptors in the stomach, esophagus and along the diaphragm. This triggers the hiccup, which creates suction in the chest, pulling air from the stomach up and out through the mouth, effectively burping the animal. This theory is supported by the strong tendency for infants to get hiccups, the component of the reflex that suppresses peristalsis in the esophagus, and the existence of hiccups only in milk-drinking mammals.

Phylogenetic hypothesis

An international respiratory research group composed of members from Canada, France and Japan proposed that the hiccup is an evolutionary remnant of earlier amphibian respiration.[12] Amphibians such as tadpoles gulp air and water across their gills via a rather simple motor reflex akin to mammalian hiccuping. The motor pathways that enable hiccuping form early during fetal development, before the motor pathways that enable normal lung ventilation form. Thus, the hiccup is evolutionarily antecedent to modern lung respiration.

Additionally, this group (C. Stauss et al.) points out that hiccups and amphibian gulping are inhibited by elevated CO2 and may be stopped by GABAB receptor agonists, illustrating a possible shared physiology and evolutionary heritage. These proposals may explain why premature infants spend 2.5% of their time hiccuping, possibly gulping like amphibians, as their lungs are not yet fully formed.[13]

Fetal intrauterine hiccups are of two types. The physiological type occurs prior to twenty-eight weeks after conception and tend to last five to ten minutes. These hiccups are part of fetal development and are associated with the myelination of the phrenic nerve, which primarily controls the thoracic diaphragm.

The phylogeny hypothesis explains how the hiccup reflex might have evolved, and if there is not an explanation it may explain hiccups as an evolutionary remnant, held-over from our amphibious ancestors.[14] This hypothesis has been questioned because of the existence of the afferent loop of the reflex, the fact that it does not explain the reason for glottic closure, and because the very short contraction of the hiccup is unlikely to have a significant strengthening effect on the slow-twitch muscles of respiration.


Hiccups are normally waited out, as any fit of them will usually pass quickly. Folkloric 'cures' for hiccups are common and varied, but no effective standard for stopping hiccups has been documented. Hiccups are treated medically only in severe and persistent (termed "intractable") cases.

Numerous medical remedies exist but no particular treatment is known to be especially effective.[15] Many drugs have been used, such as baclofen, chlorpromazine, metoclopramide, gabapentin, and various proton-pump inhibitors. Hiccups that are secondary to some other cause like gastroesophageal reflux disease or esophageal webs are dealt with by treating the underlying disorder. The phrenic nerve can be blocked temporarily with injection of 0.5% procaine, or permanently with bilateral phrenicotomy or other forms of surgical destruction. Even this rather drastic treatment does not cure some cases, however.

An anecdotal medical approach is to install lidocaine liniment 3% or gel 2% into the ear canal. Somehow this creates a vagus nerve-triggering reflex through its extensions to the external ear and tympanus (ear drum). The effect can be immediate, and also have lasting effect after the lidocaine effect expires after about two hours.[16]

Haloperidol (Haldol, an anti-psychotic and sedative), metoclopramide (Reglan, a gastrointestinal stimulant), and chlorpromazine (Thorazine, an anti-psychotic with strong sedative effects) are used in cases of intractable hiccups. Effective treatment with sedatives often requires a dose that renders the person either unconscious or highly lethargic. Hence, medicating with sedatives is only appropriate short-term, as the affected individual cannot continue with normal life activities while under their effect.

Persistent digital rectal massage has also been proven effective in terminating intractable hiccups.[17]

The administration of intranasal vinegar was found to ease the chronic and severe hiccups of a three-year-old Japanese girl. Vinegar may stimulate the dorsal wall of the nasopharynx, where the pharyngeal branch of the glossopharyngeal nerve (the afferent of the hiccup reflex arc) is located.[18]

Bryan R. Payne, a neurosurgeon at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, has had some success with an experimental procedure in which a vagus nerve stimulator is implanted in the upper chest of patients with an intractable case of hiccups. "It sends rhythmic bursts of electricity to the brain by way of the vagus nerve, which passes through the neck. The Food and Drug Administration approved the vagus nerve stimulator in 1997 as a way to control seizures in some patients with epilepsy."[19]

Lockhart stated that hiccups can sometimes be cured by pinching the skin that covers the surface of the deltoid muscles, which is supplied by the axillary nerve which shares the c5 nerve root with the phrenic nerve.[20]

Self-care and folk remedies

There are many superstitious and folk remedies for hiccups, including headstanding, drinking a glass of water upside-down, being frightened by someone, breathing into a bag, and eating a large spoonful of peanut butter. Placing sugar on or under the tongue has also been used.[21][22]

A simple treatment involves increasing the partial pressure of CO2 and inhibiting diaphragm activity by holding one’s breath or rebreathing into a paper bag.[23] Vagus nerve stimulation can improve hiccups, done at home by irritating the pharynx through swallowing dry bread or crushed ice, or by applying traction to the tongue, or by stimulating the gag reflex.

In Plato's Symposium, Aristophanes has a case of the hiccups and is advised by Eryximachus, a physician, to cure them by holding his breath, or, failing that, by gargling or provoking sneezing. This ancient recommendation can be compared with the vagus nerve stimulation techniques mentioned previously.

Society and culture

The word hiccup itself was created through imitation. The alternate spelling of hiccough results from the incorrect assumption that it originates from the word cough.

American Charles Osborne had hiccups for 68 years, from 1922 to February 1990,[24] and was entered in the Guinness World Records as the man with the longest attack of hiccups, an estimated 430 million hiccups.[25] In 2007, Florida teenager Jennifer Mee gained media fame for hiccuping around 50 times per minute for more than five weeks.[26][27] Christopher Sands, a Briton, hiccupped an estimated 10 million times in a 27-month period from February 2007 to May 2009. His condition, which meant that he could hardly eat or sleep, was eventually discovered to be caused by a tumor on his brain stem pushing on nerves causing him to hiccup every two seconds, 12 hours a day. His hiccups stopped in 2009 following surgery.[28]

In Slavic, Baltic and Hungarian folklore, it is said that hiccups occur when the person experiencing them is being talked about by someone not present.[29] In Indian, Nepalese, and Arabic folklore, they are similarly said to occur when the person experiencing them is being thought of by somebody close.

See also


  1. 1 2 Wilkes, Garry (2 August 2007). "Hiccups". eMedicine. Medscape. Retrieved 22 April 2009.
  2. "Hiccups". Home Remedies. Retrieved 5 November 2011.
  3. "Hiccups". WebMD. Retrieved 6 February 2014.
  4. "Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease". A.D.A.M Medical Encyclopedia. PubMed Health. Retrieved 18 July 2016.
  5. 1 2 Willis, FM (2003). "Chronic hiccups". Modern Drugs Discovery. 6 (6). Retrieved 12 October 2016.
  6. 1 2 Howes, D. (2012). "Hiccups: A new explanation for the mysterious reflex". BioEssays. 34 (6): n/a. doi:10.1002/bies.201100194.
  7. "Hiccups Happen!" (PDF). University of Maryland Hospital for Children. Retrieved 2 April 2012.
  8. "Hiccup and apparent myoclonus after hydrocodone: review of the opiate-related hiccup and myoclonus literature.".
  9. Milano, Meadow. "Causes of Hiccups". Archived from the original on 2010-11-25. Retrieved 2 April 2012.
  10. 1 2 3 "Hiccups: Causes". MayoClinic.com. 2011-06-03. Retrieved 2013-07-10.
  11. Witoonpanich R, Pirommai B, Tunlayadechanont S (2004). "Hiccups and multiple sclerosis". Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand = Chotmaihet thangphaet. 87 (10): 1168–71. PMID 15560692.
  12. Straus C, Vasilakos K, Wilson RJ, Oshima T, Zelter M, Derenne JP, Similowski T, Whitelaw WA (February 2003). "A phylogenetic hypothesis for the origin of hiccough". BioEssays. 25 (2): 182–188. doi:10.1002/bies.10224. PMID 12539245.
  13. P. Kahrilas and G. Shi (1997). "Why do we hiccup?". Gut. 41 (5): 712–713. doi:10.1136/gut.41.5.712. PMC 1891574Freely accessible. PMID 9414986.
  14. "Why we hiccup". BBC News. 6 February 2003.
  15. Porter, Robert S., ed. (2011). "Hiccups". The Merck Manual Online. Merck Sharp & Dohme.
  16. Thomas RH, Thomas NJ (December 2006). "Miracle hiccough cure gets the attention it deserves". BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.). 333 (7580): 1222. doi:10.1136/bmj.39051.721632.3A. PMC 1693610Freely accessible. PMID 17158401.
  17. Odeh M, Bassan H, Oliven A (February 1990). "Termination of intractable hiccups with digital rectal massage". Journal of Internal Medicine. 227 (2): 145–6. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2796.1990.tb00134.x. PMID 2299306.
  18. Iwasaki N, Kinugasa H, Watanabe A, Katagiri T, Tanaka R, Shin K, Satoh H (May 2007). "食用酢の点鼻による吃逆の治療 Hiccup treated by administration of intranasal vinegar". No to Hattatsu. Brain and Development (in Japanese). 39 (3): 202–5. PMID 17515134.
  19. Schaffer, Amanda (10 January 2006). "A Horrific Case of Hiccups, a Novel Treatment". New York Times. Retrieved 24 April 2008.
  20. Lockhart, R. D. (1974). Anatomy of the human body (2nd ed.). Lippincott. pp. 202–5.
  21. Engleman EG, Lankton J, Lankton B (December 1971). "Granulated sugar as treatment for hiccups in conscious patients". The New England Journal of Medicine. 285 (26): 1489. doi:10.1056/nejm197112232852622. PMID 5122907.
  22. Boswell, Wendy (25 March 2007). "MacGyver Tip: Cure hiccups with sugar". The People's Pharmacy (Lifehacker). Retrieved 30 November 2009.
  23. "The Two Mechanisms That Make Hiccup Cures Actually Work". Retrieved 16 September 2016.
  24. In pictures | Guinness medical record breakers | Longest attack of hiccups. BBC News. Retrieved on 2 June 2013.
  25. "Survivor of 68-Year Hiccup Spell Dies". Omaha World-Herald (Sunrise ed.). 5 May 1991. p. 2.B.
  26. "Florida girl hiccuping again after returning to school". MSNBC. 16 March 2007.
  27. "'Hiccup Girl' Jennifer Mee May Use Tourette's Defense, Says Lawyer". CBS News. 27 October 2010. Archived from the original on 1 January 2011.
  28. Symons, Jane (8 May 2008). "So does holding your breath REALLY banish hiccups?". The Sun. London.
  29. "A régi babonák napjainkban is élnek" (in Hungarian). ujszo.com. Retrieved 3 December 2016.

Further reading

  • Provine, Robert R. Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond (Harvard University Press; 2012) 246 pages; examines the evolutionary context for humans
  • Shubin, Neil (February 2008). "Fish Out of Water". Natural History. 117 (1): 26–31. INIST:19986878.  – hiccup related to reflex in fish and amphibians.
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