October 28, 2020

Recognizing and Refuting the Myth of Tongue Swallowing During a Seizure

Abstract, originally published in Seizure

Objective: There is a harmful myth that persists in modern culture that one should place objects into a seizing person’s mouth to prevent “swallowing the tongue.” Despite expert guidelines against this, the idea remains alive in popular media and public belief. We aimed to investigate the myth’s origins and discredit it.

Methods: A medical and popular literature review was conducted for the allusions to “swallowing one’s tongue” and practice recommendations for and against placing objects into a seizing person’s mouth. Current prevalence of these beliefs and relevant anatomy and physiology were summarised.

Results: The first English language allusions to placing objects in a patient’s mouth occurred in the mid-19th century, and the first allusions to swallowing one’s tongue during a seizure occurred in the late 19th century. By the mid-20th century, it was clear that some were recommending against the practice of placing objects in a patient’s mouth to prevent harm. Relatively recent popular literature and film continue to portray incorrect seizure first aid through at least 2013. There is ample modern literature confirming the anatomical impossibility of swallowing one’s tongue and confirming the potential harm of putting objects in a patient’s mouth.

Conclusion: One cannot swallow their tongue during a seizure. Foreign objects should not be placed into a seizing person’s mouth. We must continue to disseminate these ideas to our patients and colleagues. As neurologists, we have an obligation to champion safe practices for our patients, especially when popular media and culture continue to propagate dangerous ones.