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How Sword Swallowing Works


The Dangers of Sword Swallowing
When swallowed, a sword travels past a number of vital organs inside the body, including the heart, the lungs and the aorta.
When swallowed, a sword travels past a number of vital organs inside the body, including the heart, the lungs and the aorta.
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Sword swallowing involves deliberately conditioning your body to do something its defense mechanisms prohibit, so it's not surprising that it's a dangerous activity. It's also not widely studied in the field of medicine, perhaps because there are so few sword swallowers. The results of the most thorough medical study appeared in the British Medical Journal. The study involved the voluntary survey of 110 English-speaking sword swallowers. Forty-six of the 48 performers who responded consented to having their data used in the study. Thirty-three of the respondents included information about their medical histories. From most to least common, the side-effects they experienced from sword swallowing included:

  • Throat pain, or sword throat
  • Persistent lower chest pain, likely from injury to the esophagus or the diaphragm
  • Internal bleeding
  • Esophageal perforations, three of which required surgery
  • Pleurisy, an inflammation of the lungs
  • Pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac that covers and protects the heart

Some respondents described seriously injuring themselves shortly after an unusually painful sword-swallowing performance. A logical conclusion is that the swelling and tissue trauma associated with minor injuries may lead to more severe injuries. Sinus infections are another potential side effect, since the practice involves guiding a non-sterile surface past tissues that connect to the sinus passageways.

Since the survey polled living sword swallowers, it did not include discussions of deaths caused by sword swallowing. However, other medical literature has cited sword swallowing as a cause of death. Another British Medical Journal article describes a sword swallower who died after trying to swallow an umbrella [source: BMJ] Sword swallowing also appears in historical books on medicine, some of which present fantastic claims of people completely swallowing knives and living with the foreign objects in their stomachs for years at a time.

Not all medical discussions of sword swallowing involve injuries and deaths, though. In the mid-1800s, during the early development of endoscopy, or the examination of the interior of the human body using a scope, the available tools were generally rigid. Researchers sometimes worked with sword swallowers, whose throats could accommodate the inflexible instruments.

As with other dangerous performance arts, such as fire breathing, the human blockhead trick, and walking across glass, there's no real way to make authentic sword swallowing significantly safer. However, since the practice has most likely existed for thousands of years, it's also not likely to fade away any time soon. To learn more about sword swallowing and related acts, check out the links on the next page.