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Why do we get hiccups?

The hiccups are one of the strangest reflexes in humans. Everyone has it now and then, and yet we still don't know exactly why.

From a medical point of view, hiccups are involuntary muscle tension of the diaphragm (and other respiratory muscles), usually occurring in irregular series, with a briefly delayed closure of the glottis in the larynx. The abrupt stop of inhalation leads to the typical "hiccup".

The hiccups are a normal reflex, similar to the cough reflex. Typical triggers for hiccups are expansion of the stomach or lower esophagus. They are the result of eating quickly, drinking carbonated beverages or being irritated by spicy, hot or cold food. Alcohol consumption is also often accompanied by a stretching of the stomach. In addition, alcohol lowers the reflex threshold, which is why the hunching drunk is literally proverbial.

Once triggered, a nerve impulse in the brain is automatically switched to the diaphragmatic and larynx nerves without our being able to influence it. In very rare cases, hiccups can also be triggered by a foreign body in the ear canal, because a small area of ​​skin is supplied by the same nerve that also runs to the larynx.

After all, we know that babies in the womb have regular hiccups. The frequency of hiccups is very high in infancy, especially after eating, and then decreases in the course of development without ever disappearing completely.

To answer the question of why hiccups exist in the first place, three hypotheses are discussed: First, it could be used for breathing exercises in the womb to prepare the baby for breathing after birth. Second, the phenomenon could be an evolutionary holdover from mammalian ruminating. And thirdly, the hiccups may have served to push unpalatable or poisonous food back up through the lower esophagus with the help of the sudden change in pressure in the chest.