Dec. 22, 2006 -- Many of us have witnessed this scene -- sword swallowers passing long, cold, steel blades into their throats, with their necks arched back and their stance completely still. Our hearts pound with that of the sword swallower, and we are arrested in utter amazement at the hazardous display before us.
There is no doubt that sword swallowing is a dangerous profession, but to what degree? This is the question an international team of researchers sought to answer in a new study published in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal.
The verdict? Sword swallowers are more likely to sustain injuries when they use multiple or unusual swords, or if they become distracted.
It may not be a surprise that sword swallowing is a dangerous pastime. But the new information could help save the lives of devotees to this rarefied art form.
"There is little information out there on sword swallowing for doctors or emergency medicine personnel," said Dan Meyer, executive director for Sword Swallowers Association International, an author of the study -- and a sword swallower himself.
"A lot of times, sword swallowers would have an injury and go to the hospital, but the doctors won't know how to treat them."
Forty-six sword swallowers participated in the study. Among them, six had suffered perforation of the throat and esophagus, and one was told that the sword "brushed" the heart. Nineteen sword swallowers had throat pain while learning the art, and many experienced lower chest pain following performances, the study says.
Of the six sword swallowers who punctured themselves, three underwent major surgeries to the neck.
"Sword swallowing is not an illusion," said Dr. Brian Witcombe, consultant radiologist at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital in Gloucester, United Kingdom, and an author of this study.
How Do They Do It?
Sword swallowing goes against every reflex ingrained in the digestive system. A sword swallower must learn to suppress the gag reflex and control retching, or the consequences are unthinkable.
With this in mind, it should come as little surprise that it takes between three and seven years for a sword swallower to be able to successfully and consistently pass swords into his or her gut, according to Sword Swallowers Association experts.
And few living human beings have mastered this art.
"Currently, there are about 110 living sword swallowers in the world who had, at one point in their lives, swallowed a sword," said Meyer.
And he suggests there may be good reasons for this.
"Sword swallowing is one of the most uncomfortable things I do," Meyer admitted.
"I have to close down everything in my mind. I need to get pass the gag reflex, line up the sword with my upper esophagus muscle, slide the sword down the esophagus while focusing on relaxing the esophagus, slide the sword by my heart, in between my lungs, and pass it by the lower esophagus muscle into my stomach.
"Sometimes, I can feel that the blade is warm if it has been out in the sun. Other times, the blade feels cold if the weather is cold," said Meyer. "And sometimes, it makes my eyes water.
"But the reward I get from seeing the looks on people's faces is worth it."
No Illusion -- Risks Are Real
"The main risks of sword swallowing are perforation of the pharynx and esophagus, and bleeding," said Witcombe. "Some [swallowers] had torrential hemorrhage."
Researchers found that things get especially hazardous when swallowers use multiple or unusual swords.
One swallower in the study tore his throat while trying to swallow a curved saber. Another swallower -- after getting distracted by a macaw on his shoulder -- cut his esophagus and then developed inflammation in the lining of his lung.
A female swallower who was also a belly dancer suffered major bleeding when an audience member pushed dollar bills into her belt, which caused the three blades in her esophagus to scissor.
"It is not just a trick. It is extremely dangerous," said Meyer.
Thinking about Sword Swallowing?
For those daring souls contemplating sword swallowing, the experts have these words of advice for you.
"I would advise them not to do sword swallowing," said Witcombe.
"Don't do it. Don't try it. The risk of sword swallowing hurting or killing us is high," said Meyer.
So, why would anyone risk their lives to perform this art in the first place?
"On television today, we see so many gimmicks and illusions," said Meyer. "I do it because it's real.
"It's fun to watch people's faces in complete disbelief, and for them to appreciate how incredible the human body is."