How Sword Swallowing Works


Bodily Feats Image Gallery Dan Meyer swallowing a sword underwater in a tank of sharks and stingrays. See more bodily feat pictures.
Photo by Tim O'Brien courtesy of Ripley's Believe It or Not!

Some people think of sword swallowing as a magic trick. After all, as with most magic tricks, sword swallowing doesn't seem like something that should be possible. It can be a little easier to accept the idea that it's all an illusion than to believe that a person can guide a long piece of metal all the way into his stomach. If you've ever watched a sword-swallowing performance, you may have also gotten the impression that the performer is trying to gain the audience's trust, just like a magician does. He might invite members of the audience to join him on stage to inspect the swords or even to pull them from his mouth.

Several sources support the idea that there's a trick to sword swallowing. Famed magician and escape artist Harry Houdini wrote about sword swallowing in "The Miracle Mongers, an Expose." According to Houdini, some of the sword swallowers of his time swallowed metal sheaths before their performances [source: The Miracle Mongers]. "Encyclopedia Britannica" online reiterates this idea. It defines sword swallowing as a magic trick and claims that most performers prepare for the event by swallowing a metal tube that's 17.7-19.7 inches (45-50 centimeters) long and about an inch (25 millimeters) wide. [ref: Encyclopedia Britannica].

There is a trick to real sword swallowing, but it doesn't involve illusions or preemptively-swallowed metal tubes. Instead, it involves lots of physical and psychological preparation. For some performers, learning to swallow a sword can take years. In this article, we'll examine what it takes to swallow a sword and why sword swallowing is an extremely dangerous practice.

The act of swallowing a sword is an interaction between two fundamentally dissimilar objects - a human being's upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract and a sword. The upper GI tract is a series of connected, living organs. It includes the throat, or pharynx, the esophagus and the stomach. The GI tract is relatively soft, and it has several pronounced curves in its relaxed state. A sword, on the other hand, is inanimate and rigid. Although some sword swallowers can swallow a wavy blade, like a kris, and some incorporate curved swords into their performances, most swallowed swords are completely straight.

You can think of the GI tract as a living scabbard that the sword slides into. However, barring ineptitude, sheathing a sword in an ordinary scabbard does not generally have the potential to be fatal - sword swallowing does. Although the swords used in sword swallowing do not have sharp edges, they are still capable of puncturing, scraping or otherwise perforating the GI tract. If someone swallo­ws multiple swords, the blades can slide past each other like scissors. When this happens, the inner surface of the GI tract can get caught between the moving swords, leading to serious lacerations.

In addition, it's easy to fit a sword into a matching sheath, but learning how to swallow a sword takes a lot of practice. We'll look at exactly what happens, as well as how swallowing a sword is different from swallowing food, in the next section.

Sword Swallowing and the GI Tract

On the left, the relatively curvy human GI tract. On the right, a sword of comparable length.
On the left, the relatively curvy human GI tract. On the right, a sword of comparable length.
HowStuffWorks.com

The human gastrointestinal (GI) tract is made of two types of muscle tissue - skeletal muscle and smooth muscle - and a lubricating layer known as the mucosa. In general, the movement of skeletal muscle is voluntary - you have conscious control over it. When you talk, type, blink and move, you're using skeletal muscle. The movement of smooth muscle, on the other hand, is generally involuntary. Smooth muscle is responsible for actions like the dilation of blood vessels and movement of food during digestion. Many of your body's activities, including breathing and eating, require the participation of both skeletal and smooth muscle tissue.

The portions of the GI tract made of skeletal muscle include your mouth, your pharynx and the upper portion of your esophagus, which connects your throat to your stomach. These are the parts of your GI tract that you have conscious control over. When you swallow, you consciously use your tongue to move the food toward your pharynx. Your larynx then moves upward, and a ring of muscle called the upper esophageal sphincter relaxes. This allows the food, or bolus, to move into your esophagus. A flap of tissue known as the epiglottis seals off your windpipe during this process so the food doesn't go into your lungs.

The actions of the rest of your GI tract are involuntary. When the bolus reaches the part of your esophagus lined with smooth muscle, an automatic process called peristalsis takes over. The ring of muscle tissue just above the bolus squeezes together, forcing the bolus down toward the stomach. Then, the process repeats itself until the food reaches the stomach. A second sphincter, the lower esophageal sphincter, relaxes to allow the bolus into the stomach.

This whole process takes place in very close proximity to other organs in your body, including your:

  • Trachea, or windpipe
  • Heart
  • Aorta, the artery that carries blood from your heart toward the rest of your body
  • Vena cava, the major veins that return your blood to your heart
  • Diaphragm, the sheet-like muscle that moves up and down, allowing you to breathe

A number of other important structures, like blood vessels and lymph nodes also surround your throat, esophagus and stomach. These are the structures that the sword passes by on its way down.

We'll look at the process of swallowing a sword step by step in the next section.

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.

Learning to Swallow Swords

Dan Meyer swallowing seven swords to help break a world record.
Dan Meyer swallowing seven swords to help break a world record.
Photo courtesy Dan Meyer

The process of swallowing a sword involves more than just lining everything up and letting gravity do its work. In order to successfully swallow a sword, a performer must learn to relax muscles that are typically not under voluntary control. These include the upper and lower esophageal sphincters and the muscles of the esophagus that are involved in peristalsis.

He must also make the performance look easy, which can be a challenge. If you have ever swallowed a mouthful of food that was too large or not thoroughly chewed, you know how sensitive your esophagus can be. A sword swallower must move a cold, rigid sword down the entire length of his throat and esophagus without letting his discomfort show.

The human body also has a defense mechanism that has the sole function of preventing everything but chewed, swallowed food from entering the throat - the gag reflex. When you accidentally touch the back of your throat with your toothbrush and involuntarily gag, you've activated this reflex. In some people, the gag reflex is quite sensitive and can be activated by touching the back of the mouth. In others, the gag reflex is minimal.

A successful sword swallower has to learn to ignore his gag reflex. This is not an easy process. Reflexes are involuntary - they happen without deliberate effort or thought. Your reflexes allow you to jerk your hand away from a hot stove, and they're also involved in the involuntary portions of body processes like urinating. Infantile reflexes are vital to the growth and development of newborn babies. All of these reflexes are vital to survival, and all of them happen without the involvement of your conscious mind. Most don't even require the help of your brain - the reactions take place in the spinal cord, bypassing the brain entirely.

Reflexes involve several physiological components that combine to form a reflex arc. Here's what happens:

  • A receptor, or nerve ending, detects a threat or an event that requires the body's immediate attention.
  • A nerve, or neuron, carries the receptor's information to the central nervous system (CNS).
  • The integration center in the CNS determines the body's response.
  • A motor neuron carries the integrating center's instruction to the appropriate part of your body.
  • An effector makes a necessary change to what's going on in your body.

In the case of your gag reflex, nerve endings in the back of your throat detect an intrusive object. This generates nerve impulses, which a neuron carries to the integration center in your brain stem. The brain stem, using a motor neuron, instructs the muscles in your throat - the effectors - to contract. The result is a retch intended to force foreign objects out of the throat and mouth. All of this is involuntary and happens in an instant.

Learning to ignore an involuntary process takes a tremendous amount of practice. In the case of sword swallowing, it generally involves deliberately activating the gag reflex over and over. The process can cause vomiting and considerable discomfort. It also dulls or removes a process intended to protect the person from harm. This is one of the many reasons why sword swallowing is dangerous. We'll look at some of the hazards of sword swallowing in the next section.

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.
HowStuffWorks.com

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.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Chen, T.S. and P.S. Chen. "The History of Gastroenterology: Essays on its Development and Accomplishments."
  • Encyclopedia Britannica. "Sword Swallowing." 20072007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 29(6/7/2007) http://search.eb.com/eb/article-9070678
  • Gould, George M. and Walter L. Pyle. "Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine." http://www.worldwideschool.org/library/books/tech/medicine/ AnomaliesandCuriositiesofMedicine/legalese.html
  • Houdini, Harry. "The Miracle Mongers, an Expose." http://www.worldwideschool.org/library/books/lit/newage/ MiracleMongers/toc.html
  • Meyer, Dan. "Cutting Edge Innertainment." (6/7/2007) http://www.blue-n-gold.com/halfdan/dipstick.htm
  • Scheinin, Scott A. and Patrick R. Wells. "Esophageal Perforation in a Sword Swallower." Texas Heart Institute Journal. 2001 (6/7/2007). http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=101136
  • Sword Swallowers Association International. Swordswallow.com (6/7/2007) http://www.swordswallow.com/index.php
  • Sword Swallowrs Association International. 2007 (6/7/2007) http://www.swordswallow.org/index.php
  • Whitcombe, Brian and Dan Meyer. "Sword Swallowing and its Side Effects." British Medical Journal. (6/7/2007) http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/333/7582/1285
  • Whitcombe, Brian. "Sword Swallowing Uncertainties." British Medical Journal. 2005 (6/7/2007) http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/331/7524/1080