The Secrets (and Perils) of Sword Swallowing Revealed

a sword swallower. (Image credit:

Sword swallowing is a risky business. A new study reveals just how risky, and the trade secrets among those who plunge blades down into their throats and live.

Researchers sent out medical questionnaire to sword swallowers around the world asking how they learned their craft and whether they had suffered any work-related medical problems.

Of the 110 swallowers queried, 46 responded and agreed to have their results reported. Collectively, the respondents had swallowed about 2,000 swords in the past three months:

  • 25 had swallowed more than one sword at a time.
  • Five had swallowed at least 10 at a time.
  • One person had downed 16 swords at once.

The most common medical complaint: a sore throat, or “sword throat” as it's known in the business, which typically occurred while they were still learning, after frequent performances or from stunts involving multiple or odd-shaped swords. Some experienced lower chest pains, often lasting for days, which could be relieved by not swallowing any swords for a few days. Sixteen mentioned intestinal bleeding and one was told a sword had “brushed” his heart.

Three had to have surgeries to their necks: One swallower lacerated his pharynx while trying to swallow a curved saber; another slashed his esophagus, the muscular tube linking the mouth and stomach, after being distracted by a misbehaving macaw on his shoulder; and a belly dancing sword swallower suffered a major hemorrhage when a bystander shoved dollar bills into her belt, causing three blades in her esophagus to “scissor.”

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The survey, conducted by Brian Witcombe, a radiologist at Gloucestershire Royal NHS Foundation Trust in the UK, and Dan Meyer, executive director of Sword Swallowers’ Association International, was detailed in the Dec. 23, 2006 issue of the British Medical Journal and went largely unnoticed until it was highlighted  this week on the web site Boing Boing.

The researchers note in their article that “respondents could have exaggerated side effects, but it is more likely that details were overlooked.”

The study also revealed how swallowers learned their craft. Often practicing daily for months or years, many desensitized their gag reflexes by gradually increasing the size of objects they shoved down their throats, beginning with their finger, then spoons, paint brushes and knitting needles before moving on to the commonly used bent wire coat hanger.

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Performers must learn how to align a sword with their upper esophageal sphincter, a muscular ring at the upper end of the esophagus, and how to relax muscles in the pharynx and esophagus, which usually are not under voluntary control.

Tricks used to coax a blade down the throat varied: Many performers lubricated their swords first with saliva; one performer used butter and another had to retire because of a dry mouth condition. Some performed “the drop,” in which the sword falls abruptly down the throat; some invited audience members to move the sword.

The researchers concluded that “although the risk of sustaining life threatening injury is low for an experienced swallower while relaxed and concentrating on swallowing a single sword, the risk over a career is high.”