by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

Pretty well everyone gets hiccups from time to time. This is normal. Usually the hiccups go away in a few minutes. However, sometimes the hiccups persist for hours or days or weeks, and rarely, months or years.

When you hiccup, your diaphragm and nearby muscles contract, causing you to briefly gulp air. Within 35 milliseconds, the glottis at the top of your windpipe slams shut, producing the characteristic “hic”.

Hiccups are caused by a stimulus (normally an irritation) to either the vagus or phrenic nerves. When this happens, your brain sends a message via the phrenic nerve to hiccup.

The most common cause of long-term hiccups is damage or irritation to the vagus or phrenic nerves that serve the diaphragm. Incidentally, the vagus nerve also supplies nerve function to your eardrums. That is why anything that irritates your eardrum can also cause extended hiccups.

It could be something as innocuous as a hair touching your eardrum or an insect deep in your ear canal. For example, a 27-year-old man complained to his doctor that he’d been hiccupping for four days. The doctor looked into his ear and saw a hair tickling his eardrum. As soon as the doctor removed the hair, his hiccupping stopped.

Furthermore, anything that touches your eardrum can cause it to “flutter” as it rapidly retracts from contact with any foreign object and then relaxes again—which brings it in contact with the object again. This produces a fluttering kind of tinnitus. It feels somewhat similar to having a live insect flapping his wings in your ear canal.

This fluttering tinnitus can also result from a piece of wax touching your eardrum. So, if you were cleaning out your ears with a Q-tip and subsequently noticed a fluttering feeling in your ear or ended up with hiccups that won’t go away, going to your doctor and having your ear canals cleaned out may be the simple solution to either of these problems.