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How Sword Swallowing Works


Swallowing Food versus Swallowing Swords
A swallowed sword passes through two sphincters and straightens the GI tract on its way down.
A swallowed sword passes through two sphincters and straightens the GI tract on its way down.
© 2007 HowStuffWorks.com

When a performer swallows a sword, it takes the same path that swallowed food does, but the process is significantly different. Swallowing food involves the contraction of several muscles. Sword swallowing, on the other hand, requires deliberate relaxation of the upper GI tract. Here's what happens:

  1. The performer tips his head back, hyper-extending his neck, to align the mouth with the esophagus and straighten the pharynx.
  2. He consciously moves his tongue out of the way and relaxes his throat.
  3. He aligns the sword with his GI tract and moves it through his mouth, pharynx and upper esophageal sphincter and into his esophagus. The performer's saliva lubricates the sword. Some performers use additional lubricant, like vegetable oil or jelly.
  4. On its way down, the sword straightens out the curves of the esophagus. It passes by numerous organs - in some cases, it actually nudges them out of the way.

Sometimes, the sword also passes the lower esophageal sphincter and enters the stomach, but this doesn't necessarily happen every time. The distance from the teeth to the portion of the stomach that connects to the esophagus, known as the cardia, is approximately 40 centimeters. The Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI) defines a sword swallower as a person who can swallow a 15-inch (38-centimeter) sword, which wouldn't necessarily enter the stomach. The SSAI's maximum recommended length for a swallowed sword is 24 inches (61 centimeters), which would put the tip of the sword well into the performer's stomach [Source: swordswallow.com].

Those three steps can sound deceptively easy, but sword swallowing is extremely difficult to master. It's also not something that people should try without the help of an experienced professional. We'll look at why - and what can go wrong - in the next section.