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, drink carbonated drinks, or just eat too much. All of these things can irritate your diaphragm, causing it to go into a spasm.
Why we hiccup
Although it seems like hiccups' only job is to be annoying, researchers have found that hiccups may actually play a role in our early development. A study conducted by researchers at the University College London found that the act of hiccuping sends a message to the brain in babies to regulate breathing.
“The reasons for why we hiccup are not entirely clear, but there may be a developmental reason, given that fetuses and newborn babies hiccup so frequently,” Kimberley Whitehead, the study’s lead author, said in a statement.
For the study, which was published in the journal Clinical Neurophysiology, researchers monitored 13 newborn babies and found they spend about 15 minutes a day hiccuping. They said hiccups begin in the womb at 9 weeks and is one of the earliest activities humans develop.
While studying brain scans of the infants, researchers saw that when the infants hiccuped it "evoked a pronounced response in the brain’s cortex – two large brainwaves followed by a third."
There doesn't seem to be a benefit for adults, however.
“Our findings have prompted us to wonder whether hiccups in adults, which appear to be mainly a nuisance, may in fact by a vestigial reflex, left over from infancy when it had an important function," Whitehead said.
Stopping the hiccups
Usually, most cases of the hiccups resolve themselves in a few minutes or at most, a few hours. Though rare, prolonged hiccups lasting for days could be a sign of a more serious medical condition, so talk to your doctor.
For those occasional hiccups that are more annoying than alarming, here are a few tricks to try.
The first 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? There's likely no clinical research behind them, but some people swear they work. They include things like drinking water from the far side of the glass, eating a teaspoon of sugar, and having someone scare you.
If you’ve ever been to a dinner party where someone’s had the hiccups, you’ve probably 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!”)
Shel Silverstein, in fact, had all the cures in his poem "Hiccup Cure."
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?
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was published in January 2011.