Sword swallowers are more likely to sustain an injury - such as a perforation of the oesophagus - if they are distracted or are using multiple or unusual swords, finds a study in this week's Christmas issue of the BMJ.
Sword swallowers who can swallow a non-retractable solid steel blade at least two centimetres wide and 38 centimetres long are recognised by the SSAI (Sword Swallowers' Association International). Despite the obvious dangers of the profession, English medical literature contains only two case reports of injury resulting from sword swallowing.
The authors set out to explore the techniques and side-effects of sword swallowing. Forty-six SSAI members took part in the study, 19 had experienced sore throats whilst learning, many had suffered lower chest pain following some performances, and six had suffered perforation of the pharynx and oesophagus, one other was told a sword had 'brushed' the heart.
The research found that these injuries occurred either when swallowers used multiple or unusual swords, or when they were distracted. For example one swallower lacerated his pharynx when trying to swallow a curved sabre whilst another suffered lacerations after being distracted by a 'misbehaving' macaw on his shoulder.
The average age of those taking part in the study was 31, most were self-taught and had learnt the skill at an average age of 25 years, with nine learning the skill as teenagers. There was no apparent correlation between height and the length of sword swallowed and the longest sword swallowed was 60 centimetres.
The cost of medical care was a concern for the group, with three members receiving medical bills ranging from £12,000 - £37,000 (23,000 - 70,000 US dollars).