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We’ve all experienced the familiar spasm of a hiccup – often at the most inappropriate moments – yet remarkably little is know about its causes. We know hiccups are the result of spasms of the diaphragm, with the phrenic nerve (which supports the diaphragm) thought to be responsible for these spasms. But hiccups do not seem to serve any useful purpose. Hiccups are commonly associated with a big meal, too many beers and a sudden giggle, and in serious cases can cause insomnia, exhaustion and even death. Most hiccups settle of their own accord, but many of us swear by our own special cures despite the lack of evidence that any of these methods actually work.

“Common cures for the hiccups include drinking a glass of water in some way,” says Dr Linda Friedland, international health expert and author of the Ultimate Guide to Family Health. “Some people swear by gulping, while others insist on small sips. There is no scientific evidence for any of these methods.”

Chronic hiccuping is commonly caused by digestive tract problems and, in rare cases, by central nervous system disorders, a Chilean study found. Prescription drugs can be used to treat hiccups that have lasted longer than two days. If these are ineffective your doctor may recommend an injection of an anaesthetic to block your phrenic nerve and stop the hiccups, according to the Mayo Clinic in the US.

What you can do

Most hiccups will go away on their own, but there’s no harm in trying the miracle cures your mum swears by: hold your breath, drink water from the far side of a glass, or breathe into a paper bag.

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