Sword Swallowing Risks Hard to Stomach

ByABC News
December 21, 2006, 5:33 PM

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.

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.