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self Heimlich 10_7_09Byline: Roya Sayadi and Joel Herskowitz

Illustration: Anet James from “Swallow Safely”

[NFOSD note: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and expert training by an appropriate health care professional. Also, an Internet search on “self Heimlich maneuver” will result in additional articles and videos on this topic.]

We read in newspapers or online every day about someone’s heroism in administering the Heimlich maneuver to someone choking on food.

But suppose that other person were not present? What then? Would they simply choke to death? If that person were YOU, what would you do?

If you can’t speak, breathe, or cough, do the Heimlich maneuver — on yourself.

Try not to panic. If you have an emergency contact device, trigger it immediately. Then carry out the “self-Heimlich maneuver” without further delay.

Stand against a sink, countertop, desk, or sturdy chair.  Press your upper belly firmly against its upper edge, grasping its sides with both hands. Thrust yourself forward vigorously, bending slightly at the waist. Repeat as needed.

If a desk or other suitable structure is not available, use your own wrapped fist to carry out the abdominal thrusts.

Why is the Heimlich maneuver necessary and why does it work?  The Heimlich maneuver is needed because air is blocked at the level of the throat or the windpipe from getting into or out of the lungs.

The Heimlich maneuver works because it increases pressure within the chest and forces the blocking material up and out. Sort of like a cork popping out of a carbonated beverage bottle that’s shaken.

What should you do after your self-Heimlich maneuver?

If you have any rib pain, you should be checked medically for broken or bruised ribs. If you have belly pain, get yourself examined for injury to liver, spleen, or other internal organs. If you’re having any kind of breathing difficulty, get emergency medical help. Call 911 if necessary.

Be aware that the object you were choking on sometimes gets through – in part – to the lungs to cause pneumonia. Weeks, even months later, you may have symptoms of respiratory illness (such as wheezing, cough, or otherwise unexplained fever).

Once you’ve heaved a sigh of relief and taken care of the necessary medical issues, take stock of the situation. Why was it necessary for you to carry out the Heimlich maneuver on yourself?

Did you cut your steak in small enough pieces? Did you chew thoroughly enough to get to a safe size for swallowing? Was the meat cooked enough?

It’s not just about meat – though meat is a major culprit in people who die from choking on food. Bananas, marshmallows, and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches can take the shape of the throat to block it completely.

If you’re not drinking enough to keep your mouth and throat moist, the chance of food blocking is increased. So proper hydration is a must – especially when it comes to taking pills, another major cause of choking.

Were you engaged in an interesting, conversation and discombobulated the swallowing process by speaking or laughing?

Analyzing the situation can help you avoid another potentially lethal choking incident.

Now that you know about the self-Heimlich maneuver, please share this information with others.

Roya Sayadi, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, a speech-language pathologist, and Joel Herskowitz, M.D., a neurologist, are authors of “Swallow Safely” (