Do Sword Swallowers Really Swallow Swords?

There are some incredible acts for which the body doesn't seem to be equipped. Sword swallowing is one of them. Some may think that this act is an elaborate illusion of sorts (and sometimes it is), but it is possible for well-practiced performers to swallow swords without harm. With some caveats, naturally.

According to Ancient Origins, sword swallowing dates back thousands of years — to the early sadhus and fakirs of India. For them, it seems, it was not an elaborate performance for onlookers' entertainment, but a spiritual act of penance that showed their connection to a higher power. Perhaps it was this power that kept them safe, as the science of sword swallowing reveals how dangerous the work is.

How Stuff Works states that, typically, sword swallowers work with straight blades, while the gastrointestinal system bends naturally. It is possible, however, to straighten and align it through posture, which is why such performers are seen tilting their heads, stretching their necks, and so on. By doing so, and through relaxation of the throat and a lubricated blade, How Stuff Works reports that it's possible for a blade to pass through the esophagus and even into the stomach without causing harm. Needless to say, though, it's a skill that requires the utmost care and long hours of practice.

Practicing how to swallow a sword is harrowing

For their 2006 paper "Sword swallowing and its side effects," radiologist Brian Witcombe and sword swallower Dan Meyer contacted members of The Sword Swallowers' Association International to ask how they learned their craft (via the British Medical Journal). The majority of them, it seemed, "required daily practice over months or years." Performers learn to control the gag reflex " ... sometimes by repeatedly putting fingers down the throat ... other objects are used including spoons, paint brushes, knitting needles, and plastic tubes before the swallower commonly progresses to a bent wire coat hanger."

Then, learning to align the body so that the blade can pass through safely — after mastering the need to retch — raises further significant challenges. In short, though, it is indeed possible for meticulously trained experts to swallow swords. As Mental Floss reports, though, swallowing food or drink and swallowing a sword are opposite processes. Muscle contractions are required for swallowing food and drink, but it's the absence of these contractions that allow for the 'swallowing' of a sword.