Dear William,

When you get hiccups, it might seem like they are coming out of nowhere—and before you know it, they’re gone.

To find out exactly why hiccups happen, I talked to my friend Dr. Luisita Francis, a professor of medicine at Washington State University.

She told me part of the reason humans get hiccups has to do with a very important muscle in the abdomen: the diaphragm (DYE-UH-FRAM).

Dr. Luisita Francis

This dome-shaped muscle sits near the top of your stomach and intestines, but underneath your lungs. When you breathe in, it contracts and flattens. This motion of contraction helps pull air into the lungs.

When you breathe out, the diaphragm returns to its usual shape and helps push air out of the lungs. This happens all day long and helps you keep breathing. But sometimes the diaphragm gets a little irritated.

“When you have hiccups, what happens is you get some irritation of that diaphragm,” Francis said. “The muscle just contracts, and you end up taking in a whole bunch of air very quickly.”

The body gets a signal that all this air is coming in quickly, and that it needs to keep even more air from coming in, so the vocal cords close up.

“The vocal cords snap together really quickly and that makes the hiccup sound,” Francis said.

I was curious to know what exactly can irritate the diaphragm and cause that squeaky hiccup sound. Francis said sometimes when a person eats or drinks too much, it can make the stomach extend, which can irritate the diaphragm.

Sometimes when the body experiences stress, the diaphragm will get tight and that can make it harder for someone to take a deep breath. Some people have noted that when they experience stress, along with irregular breathing that it can irritate the diagram, too.

Dr. Universe, a grey cat with a lab coat, in a hero pose

You know, humans have come up with a bunch of different remedies to try and stop hiccups. Maybe you’ve heard of trying things like holding your breath, counting to ten, having someone scare you or other kinds of tricks. I was curious if any of them really work.

Francis said there aren’t exactly any research-based cures for hiccups. But some patients have reported that blowing into a paper bag helps them control their breath and decreases irritation. Other patients have reported that drinking a cold glass of water helps.

Hiccups can serve as a signal to be mindful of eating habits or to check in on our stress levels. While they don’t tend to stick around very long, there are some exceptions.

According to the Guinness World Records, the longest bout of hiccups on record lasted 68 years. If someone has hiccups for more than 48 hours, it’s best to talk to a doctor. But generally, hiccups are a normal part of life.

The next time you get a bout of hiccups, see how many you can count—and remember you can always blame them on your diaphragm.

Dr. Universe