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First-ever medical study of sword-swallowing injuries

“Sword swallowers,” writes radiologist Brian Witcombe, “know their occupation is dangerous.” But how dangerous? Witcombe discovered there weren’t any good data on sword-swallowing injuries, so he teamed up with Dan Meyer, the executive director of the Sword Swallowers’ Association International, to survey 110 sword swallowers and find out about their job-related injuries. The resulting paper — “Sword swallowing and its side effects” — was published in the December 2006 issue of the British Medical Journal.

I read many scientific studies that get me excited — but I’ve never encountered one that so frequently made me wince. Apparently one of the biggest dangers in sword swallowing, the authors found, was “distractions”:

For example, one swallower lacerated his pharynx when trying to swallow a curved sabre, a second lacerated his oesophagus and developed pleurisy after being distracted by a misbehaving macaw on his shoulder, and a belly dancer suffered a major haemorrhage when a bystander pushed dollar bills into her belt causing three blades in her oesophagus to scissor.

Belly dancing while swallowing swords? Ay yi yi. Other hair-raising, gothic details include a swallower whose sword “brushed his heart”, oesophageal perforation, and sore throats caused by “odd shaped or multiple swords”.

Man, this stuff reads like it was ghostwritten by Edgar Allan Poe. Another interesting trivia point: Apparently, the Sword Swallowers’ Association International only recognises “those who can swallow a non-retractable, solid steel blade at least two centimetres wide and 38 centimetres long.”

(Thanks to the Book of Joe for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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