A persisting piece of bogus medical advice is to put an object in a seizing person's mouth to prevent the patient from swallowing his or her tongue. But before you leap into action the next time you witness this type of emergency, you should know that putting anything in the mouth of someone having a seizure is actually the worst thing you could do. Instead of helping, it will likely result in injuries to the person's tongue and mouth [source: O'Connor].
Still, the question remains: Could you really swallow your tongue? To uncover the answer, let's start by taking a look at the anatomy of the mouth.
Inside the mouth, there's a crucial structure called the frenulum linguae. It's a mucous membrane situated in front of and behind the teeth and stretches across the floor of the mouth. In front of the teeth, the frenulum linguae connects the lips to the gums and creates a fold called the sublingual papilla that contains salivary glands. That same frenulum linguae structure runs down the midline of the underside of the tongue and attaches it to the floor of the mouth. This is especially important to note, because the frenulum linguae on the underside of the tongue keeps the tongue in position.
Whether you're doing a handstand, skydiving or performing party tricks with your tongue, the frenulum linguae will keep it connected to the floor of your mouth. Your tongue will never roll around completely free in your mouth, nor will it ever fall out. It's anchored for good. And for this reason, you can't swallow your tongue [source: Keeton].
However, the frenulum linguae does its job a little too well sometimes. Some babies are born with a condition called ankyloglossia, commonly known as tongue-tie. This means that the frenulum linguae connects the tongue too closely to the floor of the mouth. When a baby has tongue-tie, it can lead to trouble with breastfeeding, swallowing and, eventually, learning to speak.
For some infants, the frenulum linguae may release on its own over time. Sometimes the condition requires a frenotomy. In this surgical procedure, the frenulum is cut and then left to heal, resulting in a loosened frenulum linguae [source: Mayo Clinic].
So is it possible to swallow your tongue? Not if it's still attached to your mouth! In theory, it could be possible to cut off your tongue and swallow it, but that's a scenario you'll only see in a mobster movie.
- Keeton, William T. "Human digestive system." Encyclopaedia Britannica.(July 11, 2015) http://www.britannica.com/science/human-digestive-system#ref287518
- Mayo Clinic. "Tongue-tie (ankyloglossia)." (July 11, 2015) http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tongue-tie/basics/definition/con-20035410
- O'Connor, Anahad. "The Claim: During a Seizure, You Can Swallow Your Tongue." New York Times. April 22, 2008. (July 11, 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/22/health/22real.html?_r=1&