Q: Just finished scarfing down a plate of nachos and was promptly hit with a case of the hiccups. I’m wondering, why is it that when I eat fast, I often hiccup? What are hiccups anyway? And while we’re on the subject, got any tips on how to get rid of them?

A: Well, first let’s talk about what hiccups actually are. Even though it may not seem like it when that attractive noise emits from your throat, hiccups actually start with your diaphragm, the muscle right below your chest, that contracts and expands as your breathe. A hiccup emerges when your diaphragm contracts jerkily instead of smoothly (like it’s supposed to), causing a sudden intake of breath that is stopped when your vocal cords snap shut, causing that characteristic “hic!” noise.

So what causes your diaphragm to get all jumpy in the first place? Hiccups often occur when you eat too fast and you swallow extra air (as in your case), drink carbonated drinks, or just eat too much. All of these things can irritate your diaphragm, causing it to go into a spasm.

Usually, most cases of the hiccups resolve themselves in a few minutes or at most, a few hours (fun, fun). Though rare, prolonged hiccups lasting for days could be a sign of a more serious medical condition, so talk to your doctor. (Remember that episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” where Lexie’s mom came in with hiccups that wouldn’t go away and then, later that episode, she died? It makes me shudder when I think about it. I think doctor shows must research absolute worst case scenarios of every medical condition in order to make good television. Don’t even get me started on “House.”)

For those occasional hiccups that are more annoying than alarming, I’ve got a few tricks for you to try.

The first batch of hiccup cures aim to bring more carbon dioxide into your blood, which in turn helps relax your diaphragm. These include holding your breath for as long as you can, breathing into a paper bag for a short period of time, or quickly drinking a glass of water.

The other remedies? Well, I’m not sure if there’s any clinical research that supports their use, but I know more than a few people who swear by them. They include things like drinking water while upside down (not sure how you’re supposed to do this one), eating a teaspoon of sugar, and having someone scare the pants off you.

If you’ve ever been to a dinner party where someone’s gotten the hiccups, I’m sure you’ve heard of a wacky remedy yourself. The fun begins when you can get the person to actually do something ridiculous (“Now, pick your right leg up, hold your hands over your head, and squawk like a chicken while jumping up and down — I swear, it works!”). Which reminds me of one of my favorite kids’ poems by Shel Silverstein, called “Hiccup Cure,” which I’ll leave you with:

Hic...

Hic...

Hic...

Hic...

Want to cure your hiccups quick?

Stick out your tongue and bite your lip.

Hold your breath and shake one hip.

Pull back your left foot and kick up.

Now, you see, we've cured your hiccup.

Nothing much to it — don't you feel swell?

Hic...

Oh well...

For more on hiccups, the Mayo Clinic is a great resource.
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