The human body consists of many muscles – both internal and external. They play crucial role in performing a number of physical and physiological tasks. Quite naturally, there are chances that these muscles will undergo strains and spasms. These spasms are involuntary muscular contractions that lead to convulsions. Amongst the many muscles in the body, the largest and the strongest one is the diaphragm. The diaphragm muscle aids in breathing and works constantly from birth till death. Hence, this muscle is at high risk of having a diaphragm spasm which could be very painful and make breathing a difficult task. Let us see what a diaphragm spasm is, its symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment.

Diaphragm Spasm

Diaphragm Spasm: An Overview

The diaphragm acts like a partition and separates the chest from abdomen. This is one of those muscles in the body that most people do not think much about, unless a problem or trouble is experienced. Diaphragm helps the body in its respiratory functions. As the diaphragm contracts, it –

  • Expands the rib cage
  • Decreases the intra-pleural pressure.

Though it is not very frequent that spasms and strains occur in the diaphragm, but when diaphragm spasm does occur, the diagnosis is frequently improper. This leads to, many other diseases and disorders that could easily be avoided through some easy and simple treatments for diaphragm spasms.

Symptoms of Diaphragm Spasm

Symptoms of Diaphragm Spasm

The usual signs and symptoms of a diaphragm spasm are –

  • Hiccups as a Symptom of Diaphragm Spasm: When a spasm in the diaphragm occurs, it causes short and quick breaths gives rise to hiccups. The reason for hiccups is that the epiglottis closure interrupts the normal breathing process gives rise to the short and quick breaths.
  • Strain and Hiatal Hernia as Symptoms of Diaphragm spasm: When a person gets strains in the diaphragm, often the condition leads to hiatal hernia. In this condition, the stomach of a person pushes through the diaphragm. This is the most misdiagnosed condition and stomach, heart or circulatory problems may occur as a consequence of hiatal hernia. Along with these problems, it can also cause acid reflux or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease.
  • Diaphragm Spasm Leading to Temporary Paralysis: This is a condition in which a temporary paralysis of the diaphragm occurs as a result of a sudden force applied to the abdomen. This makes it difficult to breathe and may also cause hiccups.

Other signs and symptoms of diaphragm spasm include –

  • Pain in the middle of abdomen and chest
  • Tightness of chest and throat.

Many people are found to ignore or misdiagnose these symptoms and they carry the symptoms for the rest of their lives.

Causes of Diaphragm Spasm

There are various reasons that may cause diaphragm spasm. These are –

  • Diaphragm Spasm Caused Due to Irritation of Nerves: The main task of diaphragm is to help in the breathing process. With the help of this muscle, air flows into the lungs. The diaphragm moves down to make space for the lungs to expand for air to get into the lungs and it moves up to help the lungs in exhaling the air. The phrenic nerves control this movement of the muscle. When these nerves get irritated, the spasms occur.

It is this spasm that consequently causes hiccups. The reason behind this is the sudden interruption of breathing due to closure of the epiglottis. In fact, this epiglottis closure also causes the sound of hiccups.

In most cases, the irritation of the phrenic nerves is caused by –

  • A full stomach
  • When food and air are swallowed together and it pushes the nerves
  • Eating hot and spicy food that irritates the nerves.

It must be mentioned here that hiccups may also occur, when a person drinks too much of alcohol. Stress, shock and even excitement may also cause hiccups. However, when it lasts for more than 48 hours, it might be a sign of diaphragm spasm. Hence, seeing a doctor in such a condition is a must.

  • Diaphragm Spasm Caused Due to Sudden Force in Abdomen: People, who are associated with certain sports like boxing, where sudden forces can be applied to the sportsmen, have high chances of getting diaphragm spasms.

Epidemiology of Diaphragm Spasm

The number of people getting diaphragm spasm is clearly not known. However, about 50% of the Americans, after the age of 60 are found to have suffered or suffering from this condition, especially hiatal hernia, as a consequence of misdiagnosed or undiagnosed diaphragm spasm.

Moreover, in 11% of patients, who have gone through a cardiac surgery, get this condition as a consequence. The morbidity rate is not known, but it is entirely associated with the dysfunction. If the dysfunction is associated with the nerves, within 2 years, complete recovery can be achieved. As for diaphragmatic hernia, the survival is entirely dependent on the extent of the condition and how early it is diagnosed.

Complications Associated with Diaphragm Spasm

  • Unnecessary Consumption of Drugs and their Side Effects: As this condition leads to some circulatory, cardiac and gastrointestinal problems, many people misdiagnose the condition and take dangerous drugs to solve these problems.
  • GERD and Food Digestion Problems as a Complication of Diaphragm Spasm: Another serious complication caused by diaphragm spasm is GERD or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease. To treat this condition, medicines or drugs are given that can reduce the production of stomach acids. However, in the long run, reduced production of stomach acids makes it difficult to digest the food. The food stays in the stomach undigested and this makes it "rotten", leading to a bloating sensation and constipation. The brain receives signals that there is a lack of stomach acids and the body needs more stomach acids to digest food. In the long run, this can cause even more problems.
  • Diaphragm Spasm Leading to Problems in Absorption of Food: The task of stomach is to break down food into small, absorbable pieces. When the food doesn't break down in the stomach due to absence of enough stomach acids as a consequence of misdiagnosis and treatment for possible gastrointestinal problems, the small intestine receives food particles that have big pieces of proteins. Two things happen at this stage –
    • The body absorbs the big pieces of proteins and fails to identify them. Hence, the immunity system causes allergic reaction to them.
    • There are not enough properly broken down proteins. The amount that is available is so less that after sending the amino acids to the different parts of the body for various physical and physiological functions, only a limited amount is left for the brain. Hence, due to this lack of amino acid in the brain, the production of various neurotransmitters is disturbed. This leads to various other conditions of emotional disorders like depression, anxiety, ADD, ADHD etc. Often patients of these emotional disorders are found to have problem in the digestive system, which can be a consequence of diaphragm spasm.

Hence, before these problems are treated by medicine, it is a must that the root cause is diagnosed.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Diaphragm Spasm

It is a very important step. Often the doctors misdiagnose the condition as gastrointestinal problem, or problem in the heart by going through the symptoms like hiccups or shortness of breath. However, there is a simple test that will diagnose and will also treat the problem in almost less than 2 minutes. The steps are as follows:

  • For this, one has to lie down on their back on the floor or stand against the wall. The head and shoulder should rest on a pillow. It is a good idea to take the help of a partner.
  • The patient has to hold the breath for as long as he or she can. How long the patient can hold the breath, must be noted in by the partner. The time must be noted in terms of seconds.
  • While the patient holds the breath, the partner will have to place the hand in the upper abdomen just below the in the inverted 'V' shaped area made by the ribcage and press steadily, heavily, inwardly and downwardly right.
  • During this time, the patient will have to relax and breathe normally. This pressure by hands must be given for about 10 to 15 seconds. This procedure should be repeated for about 3 to 4 times.
  • Now, the patient is asked to hold his/her breathe again for as long as they can. If he or she can hold the breath for more than 50% time, it is a sign that the patient has diaphragm spasm.

It is the same process that can not only diagnose the condition, but also treat the condition. For that one will have to practice this daily for 1 week, then 3 times a week for 1 month and then 2 times a week for 1 month. But of course, whether this procedure is helping or not, can be understood after a few tries on the very first day. If the process is uncomfortable for you, find a chiropractor for this task. These professionally trained people can do this process well. Make sure that the pressure is not too much as these ribs are not the strongest bones in the body and might snap.


Diaphragm spasm can be distressing causing continuous hiccups and many other serious health complications. However, often diaphragm spasm goes unnoticed or misdiagnosed and treatments for the complications of it are done giving no relief. An increasing number of doctors have started to feel the importance of this condition and aim to treat it. The simple diagnosis treatment could be performed at home with the help of a partner to check if you have diaphragm spasm which will also treat it. However, if the patient has already got hiatal hernia, he or she must visit a doctor for the right treatment. Usually, symptoms like hiccups should go away with treatment. Drinking water may also help.

Written, Edited or Reviewed By:


Last Modified On: September 27, 2016

Pain Assist Inc.

Pramod Kerkar
  Note: Information provided is not a substitute for physician, hospital or any form of medical care. Examination and Investigation is necessary for correct diagnosis.

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