Enjoy the holiday spread, but know the Heimlich maneuver

December 20, 2016 Providence Health Team

Henry Heimlich is gone, but his life-saving maneuver endures.

Dr. Heimlich, the Cincinnati surgeon who died recently of a heart attack at the age of 96, made himself a kind of a medical celebrity. He was a popular speaker whose name will be forever associated with a technique to dislodge food from the windpipes of people who are choking.

The maneuver is a kind of bear hug, using blows to the back of the choking person and forceful thrusts to the abdomen from behind. The technique is credited with saving the lives of thousands of people, including Ronald Reagan, Cher and former New York mayor Ed Koch.

The holiday season, when people gather around tables laden with gingerbread, latkes, fruitcake, turkey, brisket and other festive foods, is a good time for a refresher on how to do the Heimlich maneuver. If you see someone who is in distress, unable to speak, you may need to know it.

Steps for performing the Heimlich maneuver

Usually, the Heimlich is a technique you do to someone who is choking, but you can also do it to yourself.

If you’re choking:

  • Make a fist and place the thumb side against your gut, below the rib cage and above the navel.
  • Using your other hand, ram your fist forcefully upward against your gut.
  • Repeat until the object is expelled.

If someone else is choking:

  • Pound your fist into the person’s upper back several times. Sometimes that’s enough to dislodge a chunk of partially swallowed food.
  • If that doesn’t work, reach around the waist of the choking person from behind, pressing the thumb side of your fist into the person’s abdomen, below the rib cage and above the navel.
  • Using your other hand, drive your fist forcefully upward into the abdomen.
  • Repeat as necessary.

If someone has swallowed water and seems to be drowning, the technique can be used to expel water. Stand behind the drowning person, holding him or her upright, and use the same fist-into-the-abdomen technique you would use on a person who is choking.

If a person is unconscious, lay him or her down on the back and, using two hands, press the heel of one hand on the abdomen below the ribs and above the navel. Press your palms upward forcefully, using your own weight for leverage. If that doesn’t dislodge food, you may need to perform CPR.

Talk to your health care provider about how to recognize when to use the Heimlich maneuver. You can find a Providence provider here.

Further reading

Read the National Safety Council’s Choking Prevention and Rescue Tips. The council said about 4,800 people died from choking in 2014. Many of them were elderly.

You can read the obituary for Henry Heimlich, M.D., at Legacy.com. He was best known for his anti-choking maneuver, but he had a colorful and sometimes contentious medical career.

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