We’ve all had the hiccups—and likely have tried to cure them by being frightened by a willing friend/sibling or using some other technique we’ve learned growing up. But what really cures the hiccups? Turns out, not even doctors are 100 percent sure. “Hiccups still appear to be a medical mystery, but we suspect it may be a dysfunction of two major nerves: the vagus and phrenic nerves,” says naturopathic physician and acupuncturist Ralph Esposito.
Meet the Expert
- Ralph Esposito, ND, LAc, is a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist.
- Kara Gross Margolis, MD, AGAF, is a pediatric gastroenterologist and an associate professor of pediatrics at Columbia University.
- Ellen Stein, MD, is a gastroenterologist and an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
As gastroenterologist Kara Gross Margolis, MD, AGAF, explains, "[Doctors] think that the act of a hiccup is caused by an abnormal movement in the diaphragm, a muscle located just below our lungs. The diaphragm helps people breathe: Its downward movement causes air/oxygen to enter the lungs and its upward movement results in air being expelled from the lungs. For breathing, these diaphragmatic movements are directed by the brain. A hiccup occurs when the diaphragm pulls downward more vigorously, which results in a larger amount of air being brought into the throat. This difference in pressure caused by intake of air causes a portion of the throat/vocal cords to close briefly, making the sound of a hiccup."
We spoke to Gross Margolis, Esposito, and gastroenterologist Ellen Stein, MD, for tips on dealing with the common—but annoying—ailment.
Ahead, find tried-and-true tips from the experts on how to avoid hiccups or at least try to get rid of them once you have them.
Press This Spot on the Back of Your Middle Finger
“One of my best treatments for hiccups is acupuncture or acupressure,” says Esposito. His go-to? A point called zhong kui, which he translates to “back of the middle finger” or the joint above the knuckle. As he explains, “It is located on the proximal interphalangeal joint (the first joint after your middle finger knuckle). Press this firmly for about five minutes on and off for relief.”
Try This Deep-Breathing Technique
"Hiccups are caused when the diaphragm is out of synch with breathing," says Stein. The best trick, she says, is to utilize what's called the diaphragmatic technique. "Make sure the belly goes out when breathing in," Stein explains. "And make sure the belly goes in when breathing out." Esposito breaks down the technique as "five-four-seven:" breathe in for five seconds, hold it for four seconds, and breathe out for seven seconds. “This helps calm the autonomic nervous system and helps calm down the vagus nerve.”
Other breathing techniques, recommended by Gross Margolis, include "holding your breath until the hiccups subside, breathing into a paper bag, pulling your knees up to your chest while leaning forward," and the good, old-fashioned scare tactic (i.e. having someone "scare" the hiccups out of you), which at the very least provides a distraction from the problem at hand.
Press and Hold This Pressure Point Below Your Wrist
Another acupuncture pressure point to relieve the hiccups is P6, which is located three fingers’ width below the wrist in the middle of your arm. “Press on this for a few minutes on each arm,” Esposito suggests. Make note: This pressure point also relieves seasickness and nausea.
Say "No" to Sparkling Beverages
While Gross Margolis notes that there are usually no obvious triggers for hiccups, anything that aggravates the digestive system can be problematic. Sparkling beverages, including water, are full of sharp bubbles, which can irritate the diaphragm and therefore lead to hiccups. The dissolved gas in carbonated drinks triggers hiccups by creating gas in the stomach. If you drink a lot of LaCroix and find yourself suffering from hiccups often, it might be time to cut back.
Don't Get Too Full at Mealtime
A distended stomach is one of the most common causes of hiccups and comes as a result of being overly full (from either food or sparkling drinks, as explained above). Research by Mark Fox, a gastroenterology professor at the University of Zurich, found that those who suffer from persistent hiccups brought on by a distended stomach may benefit from anti-reflux therapy as a line of defense.
Be Patient When Eating
"An overfilled stomach with food or air (eating too much or too quickly)" could be the source of hiccups, says Gross Margolis. Gulping down food too quickly can lead to swallowing air. Experts say to take your time when eating, chewing carefully and thoughtfully instead of ravenously chowing down at mealtime.
Avoid Alcohol, Gum, and Spicy Foods
While the root causes of hiccups are shrouded in mystery, Gross Margolis notes that prevention is key to avoiding them. She recommends staying away from alcohol, avoiding smoking, and not chewing gum. "Chewing gum can cause air swallowing," she says.
Hot and spicy foods, such as peppers, contain capsaicin, a compound that activates neurons in the diaphragm and can therefore cause the diaphragm to contract to cause hiccups. If you're a spicy-food lover, there's no real way to avoid this (at least, not one that science has determined), but taking an antacid and eating food slowly might help.
See a Doctor
In most cases, hiccups are unavoidable. "We are not exactly sure why this phenomenon occurs but they happen to everyone, from babies to older people," says Gross Margolis. And while science hasn't determined an easy way to avoid hiccups altogether, doctors say frequent bouts can signal a deeper problem, such as Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis. If you're suffering from persistent hiccups, it's best to visit a professional.
"Hiccups rarely require medical treatment," says Gross Margolis. "Hiccups that last more than a few days or keep coming back and particularly those that affect your weight or sleep, may need further evaluation and/or treatment. There are medications available in these severe, rare cases."