Swallow Your Tongue?

British comedian Rik Mayall recently became epileptic after suffering head injuries in a motorcycle crash about a year or two ago. He’s now on medication and is back at work. But I just read an interview with him wherein he says he suffered a seizure after going off his medication, and “Thankfully, I bit my tongue. That’s the worst thing, if you have a seizure and you swallow your tongue, you’re a goner.” Is it really possible to swallow your tongue? I thought that was one of those expressions like “your hair going gray overnight,” which can’t actually happen. Does anyone know?

It’s not possible to swallow your tongue. However, it is possible for your tongue to block your airway when you’re unconscious. When a person is having a seizure, the first priority is to keep the airway clear.
By inadvertantly clamping down on his tongue, the guy kept it away from the back of his throat, preventing asphyxiation.

I’ve never heard of an actual case of an epileptic swallowing his/her tongue during a seizure, but it is possible for at least some people to swallow their tongue. A girl did it on the David Letterman show a few years ago as a “Stupid Human Trick.” She survived the ordeal with no ill effects.

Thanks for the info–I am gagging just thinking about it! I wonder if any epileptic’s group will take Rik Mayall to task for spreading misinformation? For you “Blackadder” fans, by the way, he played the oversexed Capt. Flashheart.

Swallowing your tongue is what they call it when your tongue relaxes while you’re on your back. The tip of the tongue doesn’t flip around and try to go down your throat, but rather the meaty mass near the back falls back to block your wind pipe. It’s almost as if your tongue tries to turn itself inside out. I can do this on purpose, making it look like my tongue has all but disappeared down my throat - really it’s just a big lump at the top of my wind pipe. I don’t know if this is what the girl did on Letterman. It seems pretty unlikely that she flipped it around and went down tip first.

When I learned artifical respiration, they warned that the victim may have swallowed their tongue. A visual aid showed what the other posters have said, the tongue slides back to block the air passage. That is why a person administering AR tilts the victim’s head back. This opens the air passage regardless of the position of the tongue.

Carpe hoc!

Rik Mayall said:

I used to think that it was pretty bad to bite your tongue because you could actually bite if off in a strong seizure. (And then you could really swallow it, or bleed to death, or suffocate on your blood, …) Don’t they always push a stick or something into an epileptic’s mouth to stop them from biting themselves? Of course, if there’s no one to help you, and the alternative is bite off your tongue or asphyxiate here and now, but…

Am I misinformed?

The first thing you should do when you see someone having a seizure is to clear the area where they having it, so they don’t hit anything with their head or hurt themselves in some other way. Don’t try to restrain them, it won’t work.

Most likely the person having the seizure will bite their tongue. They might also wet or soil themselves. It is unlikely that their airway will become blocked.

If you think the person is not breathing, wait for the seizure to stop before rolling the person over. It will save you the discomfort of getting hit by an unconscious person.

I dunno, Bob; I’ve seen some seizures cause blocked airways. I don’t know how common statistically this is, though. When a person is prone to seizures, we always tape a bite block to the wall above the head of the bed to be ready to clear the airway as necessary. Otherwise, we do as you said: clear the area to prevent injuries. Restraining the person not only won’t work, it can cause bone fractures. In addition to the tongue thing, the patient might vomit and aspirate that, which is even more dangerous.

I’ve seen some nasty tongue-bites, too, but I’ve yet to see a tongue bitten all the way off. Yick! I can wait!

Very good advice there, Bob. :slight_smile: I’ll add this: never, ever put your fingers in the person’s mouth for any reason. Also, we tend to think first of grand mal seizures but there are other kinds.

Here’s one for you: what should you do if an epileptic has a seizure in your bathtub?
Throw in your laundry!

I can say as for the biting of the tongue, I can unfortunately speak from personal experience. (Fortunately, my seizures have been controlled by medication.)

As for the blocked airway, I was going by what I was taught in my Red Cross first aid class.

I suppose your tongue could roll back after a seizure and block the airway, but we we’re not taught not to stick anything in someone’s mouth. Trained medical personnel might do such things (especially if someone is status eplipeticus, where the seizure is prolonged.)

A surprisingly high number of people will have some kind of seizure episode in their lives. I don’t know the percentage, but it was higher than I expected.

A lot of research has been done into epilepsy and seizure disorders, but even with that the way they are often controlled is by trial and error with different medications.

Gee, well, I hope Rik Mayall becomes a public spokesman–I think epilepsy is one of the few diseases/syndromes/etc. that doesn’t have one!

If you see someone having a seizure, don’t put ANYTHING in their mouth! You will more than likely injure the person more than they would if left alone.
Even a shower is a risk for someone with a seizure disorder. I have awakened more than once face up in the shower, on the verge of drowning.
Thankfully, I don’t have very many grand mal seizures anymore, but periodically I’ll have a mild episode of weakness or a brief loss of consciousness.
Tongue swallowing is a myth, and in 15 years of having seizures, I have yet to bite my tongue.
I don’t drive anymore, so my biggest risk in a massive seizure is ruining some upholstery or a carpet when I lose bladder control.
Nobody yet has asked me to pay the cleaning bill for the couch or rug. I just don’t get asked over again.
Any other questions, I’d be happy to answer them. There is a great misunderstanding of seizure disorders(epilepsy)and persons who are afflicted with them. I’d like to clear up any difficulties folks have in relating to them.



“Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity.”~~G.K.Chesterton 1908

Thank you for setting some of us straight. I have never seized,but have been around many who have. Many Grand-Mals, for reasons I will get into in a moment.
I caught one lady, as it began, and eased her down to the floor, and cradled her skull VERY lightly, so that she would concuss herself. It was a respectable one- 45-60 seconds. Full incontinence. Foaming, cut the inside of her mouth.
I used to work with mentally retarded adults, some wore crash helmets due to nearly non-stop seizing.
NEVER place something into the mouth. Biting a tongue off is rare, but shattering teeth OR biting the object in half, and choking on THAT is a terrible thing.
Remember, if you witness the beginning of one, just help them fall gently. Many bad head traumas, just because of the onset of a grand mal. Once on the ground, it will just run its course. :slight_smile:
Typer, EMS Volunteer

I would like to clarify that of the few seizures I’ve had, I’ve only bitten my tongue once and it didn’t even bleed. I did have a funny-looking mark on my tongue for a while.

Fortunately, since my seizures are under control by medication, I am allowed to drive.

More often than not if an epileptic is an auto accident the cause is usually the same as any other accident, i.e. not paying attention, excessive speed, alcohol.

My late mother always wanted me to hide my history of seizures, but I don’t feel as if there is any stigma attached to the condition. My employers have asked me what to do if I have a seizure on the job and my response is “Don’t steal my wallet while I’m out.”

I recently asked:

Apparently, I was. Thanks for setting me straight!

I just love this board…