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Mystery Of Hiccups

Most people experience hiccups. But, what causes the minor annoyance?

The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay sheds some light on the mystery of hiccups on Thursday.

Hiccups are the result of an irritation of the phrenic nerve, which controls breathing muscles, especially the diaphragm. When this irritation occurs, the diaphragm will suddenly contract, and with the muscles between the ribs, makes you inhale quickly, usually catching you off-guard. When this irregular breath hits your voice box, the space in the throat near the vocal cords snaps shut, making that classic "hiccup" sound. Senay says hiccups are simply a part of life, and as annoying as they can be, they usually only last a few minutes.

Hiccups often seem to start for no apparent reason and usually disappear after a few minutes. On rare occasions, hiccups can last for days, weeks, or even months, but this is very unusual and it's usually a sign of another medical problem. When it comes to cases of benign hiccups, some things that irritate the diaphragm, triggering them are emotional stress or excitement; eating too quickly or too much; eating a lot of spicy foods -- you want to stay away from anything that can contribute to an upset stomach; carbonated beverages, or swallowing air; and abrupt changes in the temperature, like drinking a hot cup of coffee on a cold day. Also, drinking too much alcohol and smoking can also upset the diaphragm.

Senay says the best idea to cure hiccups is usually to just wait it out. Very rarely will people have the hiccups for more than an hour or so. People will claim they've cured their hiccups with everything from breathing into a paper bag or holding their breath to being frightened, swallowing sugar, or drinking from the opposite side of a glass. But as far as cures go, there doesn't seem to be one proven method and there's no scientific proof touting any of them as a proven cure -- more often than not, cases of benign hiccups are most likely resolved on their own regardless of treatment.

If you've noticed your hiccups have stuck with you for a couple of days, it may be something mechanical that is irritating the phrenic nerve. Senay advices to pay a visit to the doctor. Generally speaking, prolonged hiccups are usually associated with disorders of the stomach and esophagus. Some of the specific medical conditions associated with prolonged hiccups are alcoholism, laryngitis, a goiter, which is an enlargement of the thyroid gland, or a GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease).

To treat prolonged hiccups, many patients will receive thorazine. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove a tumor. There are treatments available for GERD, such as cimetidine or omeprazole or antibiotics may be used to treat an infection causing you to hiccup.