How To Swallow Pills Without Gagging

Okay, so I know this isn’t much of a life update, but I had to share this because it’s so freaking cool. And yes, given my usually sarcastic nature, this post could very well have been an amusing-to-everyone-but-me anecdote about how I projectile vomited all over my living room ceiling this morning, but it is in fact actually directions on how to swallow pills without gagging! …Novel, I know.

1) Take pill as normal, except when gag reflex starts to kick in (or before, to prevent one)…
2) Tickle/stimulate/pull/massage one ear with your free hand (not inside the canal or anything, just the big outside area).

So simple, and yet, so cool.

**

Edit: Okay, I have been getting a LOT of hits on this post, from people like me who have a lot of trouble swallowing pills without that gag reaction, so I have decided to update/expand this with more detail about what I do that now works for me… If you have a different technique that’s been good to you, or if you find any of what I write here particularly helpful, please feel free to leave a comment and let me know.  It’s tough to know what will strike a cord with others, and what’s more unique to me.

And, of course, I am not a doctor.  I am sharing my own personal success and experience, but this is not a formal medical opinion of any kind and should not be taken as such.  If you try to swallow a pill and end up injured because you have some kind of strange leprosy and shouldn’t have been touching your ears, please do not sue me.  I take no responsibility for your actions.

First off, any technique takes some practice to get just right.  …Which sucks.  Because there are few things more unpleasant than the sensation of gagging.  But if you don’t get it quite right, do keep experimenting.  Becoming aware of all of the little nuances and muscles involved so that you can manipulate them takes time.  I have one heck of an active gag reflex and used to think no matter what I did I was screwed, but eventually I got the hang of things (though even now, every now and then I still gag a little…but not often, and if you’re anything like me, you know what an achievement that is. :) ).

My sister has a technique that she swears by in which she takes a little water in her mouth, then rests the pill on top of it, tips her head back, and swallows, letting the pill float down her throat on the water like a little canoe.  That sounds like it has potential to me.  But, by the time I heard about it, I had already spent countless mornings perfecting my own system, and don’t want to start retraining from the beginning with all the gagging involved in trying to get it right.  So.

What I do:

  1. Take a small sip of water to moisten things up.
  2. Ensure as much as possible that my thoughts/anticipations aren’t causing my stomach to churn before I even get near the pill.  Swallowing pills unsuccessfully is not fun, and sometimes the body starts to ramp up the gag reflex before I even have a chance.  At a time like this, I usually need to either accept that I will gag, or wait a bit for things to settle down before trying.  I haven’t found a good way around the body when it’s in a crazy hyper-vigilant state.  Often sincerely distracting one’s thoughts can help (focus intently on the feel of the floor beneath your feet, or try to do very challenging math problems in your head, etc. Something you have to think so hard about that there isn’t room for anything else).
  3. Place the pill far back on the tongue, and quickly push it a little if necessary to get it positioned just on the brink (this takes some practice), so that it is still in the mouth, but just about to fall into the throat (though not so far back that it falls by itself before you’re ready – err on the side of caution.  And take extra care with those gel-encased pills like omega 3′s or vitamin E.  They can be slippery little buggers).  If I place a pill on my tongue, my tongue goes into these crazy convulsions to flip it back out again against my will.  This far-back positioning prevents the clever tongue from being able to work against me, and is one of the key parts of what made pill-swallowing possible for me.
  4. Take a gulp of water, and swallow it.  If the pill is close enough to the opening of the throat, it should fall down along with it.  This was all that I did for a long time.  I still gagged often, but at least the pills would get down, which is more than I could say before.  However, there are two other steps that, when added, have beaten the gag.
  5. Key #1: As described above, massage/pull/tickle/stimulate one ear with your other hand as you swallow and potentially before (the big outside cartilage bit – don’t stick your finger in the canal or anything).  It may take some experimentation to figure out exactly what technique is most effective for you with this…might be a light tickle, might involve only certain areas, might need a firmer touch, etc.  For me, sometimes I get better results if I pull it out a bit and move it around so that I can feel my ear canal opening/stretching slightly.  This sounds weird, but serves two very real purposes.  One, touching your ear stimulates the throat muscles to spasm a tiny bit, which should prevent coughing.  Two, the stimulation also provides a sensation that is stronger than the feel of the pill, which means that it is harder for the less conscious parts of your mind to pay attention to what is happening in your throat and thus easier to sneak the pill down unnoticed.
  6. Key #2:  This part had a huge impact, but took me a long time to be able to do well, so do keep trying.  It will get easier with practice, I promise.  The goal while you are swallowing, and before, when you have that pill balanced on the back of your tongue, is to keep the back of your tongue as far away from the top of your throat as possible (or, to make the space at the back as big as you can).  It takes a lot of practice to be able to tune into the muscles and sensations involved in this, but your awareness really will improve with time.  This is not an area that your brain already has much wiring for, because it’s rare that you would need it.  But the more times you pay very close attention to the sensations there and move things around, the more new connections will be built to make your perceptions in that area more refined and more accurate.  Truly, this is the way the body/brain works (and there is some very cool, totally-unrelated-to-pill-swallowing research out there on the topic if you’re interested.  It’s neat stuff!).  Anyway, the point is, if you can’t tell what’s going on in there very well at first, don’t be discouraged.  This is also a step that you can practice a bit without any pills in there, so with no discomfort or gagging if you fail. When I do this, I think about lowering the platform that is the back of my tongue, holding it as far down as I can (and keeping the pill as far down away from the top as possible).  The front of the tongue doesn’t move much in this, but the jaw opens some to make room and the back of the tongue maybe flattens some, or at least tenses.  Try opening your jaw, and note what happens to the distance between your very back molars.  Notice that if you just move the front teeth as far away from each other, the very back ones seem to actually get closer together.  Now instead try focusing on getting those very back teeth as far apart as possible.  This is more of a straight up and down pressure – the top level needs to be pulled up, and the bottom needs to be dropped down.  In doing this, it seems like a nice tennis ball sized space opens up right at the very back, in that space where the throat and mouth would “intersect” (it isn’t nearly this big in reality, but the sensation of a nice round empty space is a good one).  There will be a tiny bit of space between all the upper and lower teeth as the jaw moves to accommodate this, but the important key is that sensation of lowering the back of the jaw area (or even further back than that). Practice opening up this space as often as you can when nobody is watching, until you feel like it is nice and open and secured.  The muscles involved will strengthen as you practice, and you may find that you start to have some control over subtleties you weren’t even aware of when you started.  There is muscle tension involved in this to get the very back part of the tongue area down as well.  For me, when I do this right, there is also some sensation of pulling the front of the throat away from the back (like you were holding the passage of your throat in your neck as open as possible by force).  There are definitely muscles involved in this.  It isn’t a relaxed movement when I do it – there is active tension there, though not straining or clenching (just a light, firm, muscular activity).  It’s like relaxing the space as far as it will go, and then pulling it just that extra tiny bit further.  I’m not sure exactly which muscles are really doing what when this happens (it may be some sort of specific tensing of the neck muscles), but the sensation is one of making the space in the throat passage just a touch wider and holding it there.  Either this is actually expanding the space enough that the pill has just that tiny bit more space in which to slip down without triggering things or is held away from the places that trigger that gag reflex, or the act of having the surrounding muscles tensed like that prevents those sensors from firing properly.  Either way, once you have a firm grip over the area and can push it that extra bit wider than it would naturally be, the gagging just doesn’t happen.  I know this step is harder to explain than the others, and may take some work to get just right, but let me assure you that it is worth it.  This part has made a bigger difference to me than anything else I’ve ever tried, and is the only thing that has met with 100% success when I do it right.  As mentioned, practice the feeling of getting the space as wide as you can with no pills involved, and then just check your success with the pill when you think you’ve got it.  Saves you the gagging trial and error.

I sincerely hope that this helps.  I don’t know that there is actually a quick fix for any of us who have truly struggled to learn to swallow pills successfully.  If there were, I think we surely would have found it already.  Maybe to other people, this opening at the back of the throat comes naturally.  I don’t know.  But I know that experimenting with this and being persistent about it changed everything for me.  I was someone who truly thought that I had tried everything and would never be able to swallow pills.  Then I moved to someone who thought I would never be able to swallow them without gagging.  I can take my pills now without my husband having to listen to choking noises as each one goes down, and without having to pause between pills to allow my stomach to settle.  I hope that this makes the same difference for you.

**

I take a lot of supplements right now. It’s costing us a fortune, but I’m not in the best of health, and since we still don’t really know what’s wrong, I figure it’s probably better to do what I can to eliminate any nutritional component. I’ll do pretty much anything at this point to try to give my body an edge. For many people, I think extra vitamins do lead to really expensive pee, but for the rare people who are sincerely lacking in something, I think they can be well worthwhile, and I am definitely not a “normal, healthy person.” I know that I’ve been low on various things (VERY low on a couple, according to my blood tests – potassium and B12 in particular). They still don’t really know why, so getting a little extra until things are settled out can’t be a bad thing. And it would suck to get the rest of me back on track and still feel like crap because something else in my system wasn’t letting me get enough building blocks to make what my body needs to feel okay. I would rather provide it with lots of raw materials, and then even if it’s not manufacturing at peek efficiency, maybe I’ll still be okay.

Anyway, as I get exposed to more information, the pile of pills gets progressively larger. I’m not crazy about high doses, but it adds up to a lot to swallow. I split them up as best as I can for maximum effect. I take them in three major chunks over the course of the day, and try not to mix anything that’s supposed to interfere with anything else. I try to take them so that they will work well with what I’m eating at the time. A couple I take on an empty stomach. I have not one but THREE old lady pill containers now so that I can have my breakfast, lunch, and dinner pills separated. I am one step away from Suzanne Somers and a pile of supplements larger than my head (though I am also a good researcher, get regular blood tests, and am extremely cautious with anything that one can overdose on).

Currently I chow down on…

1) a multivitamin to cover my bases (which I would probably do regardless of my health situation. Not as good as food, but might help a little when something gets low)
2) Vitamin D (important for everyone not in regular sunlight, I think, and has links in particular to neurotransmitter production and energy/mood/seasonal-affective-disorder)
3) Omega 3 (links to depression/anxiety)
4) SAM-e (precursor to happy neurotransmitters, and potentially good for mood and energy in some people with symptoms of depression…seems to have helped me, though there has been a plateau)
5) B12 and folic acid (important to take with SAMe since it will use up more of the body’s supply and can turn into something harmful if there isn’t enough to go around. I’ve been prone to low B12 for a number of years anyway, so I’m careful with this one)
6) B Complex (leeched by stress and important for energy and adrenal hormone production which has been a verified issue for me)
7) DHEA (this is one of those adrenal hormones, and tested quite low for me so I’m on temporary short-term supplements to try to get the levels closer to normal)
8 ) Adrenal Pro (this is a collection of herbal stuff that is intended to help encourage my adrenals to do a better job of producing and balancing my hormones on their own. Longer term than the DHEA supplements, but not intended to be long term either. Hopefully my body will get the idea soon)
9) Calcium (which is probably important for most women. …Also does noticeably good things for my weight loss when I take it regularly, which I won’t sneer at either)
10) Magnesium (important to balance out the…um…poop-related effects of the calcium, and helpful in balancing out my sodium intake so that there isn’t too much strain on my potassium levels)
11) Potassium (I need to take this since my levels were inexplicably low. This is a tough one and one that I need to get tested frequently since either too low or too high is VERY bad)
12) Vitamin E (has been linked in some credible studies with treatment of the kind of hearing loss I’ve encountered. If there’s a chance that taking it will help there or make future loss less likely, I’m in)
13) Vitamin C (my immune system sucks. Seriously. Always has. Anything I can do to give it an edge is good in my book. Plus, I really don’t eat enough vitamin C rich foods)
14) Sometimes beta carotene, other antioxidants, or other supplemental things (depending on how my diet’s been, I will sometimes throw in something else. If there’s a chance that they can help ease the inflammation going on in my digestive tract or help the Vitamin E in its protective role, I figure it can’t hurt)
15) Apple Cider Vinegar, Digestive Enzymes, and a Probiotic (these three are supposed to be making progress with my stomach issues. …No luck so far)

Makes for a pile of pills, given that with many of these I am supposed to take 2, 3, or 4 pills per day. And getting back to the point of this post in the first place, this becomes more daunting when I say that I am TERRIBLE at swallowing pills. Terrible. Always have been. I have vivid memories of a caregiver who refused to believe me and tried to force me to swallow a Tylenol when I had a fever. I threw up all over her bed. Sort of thought it served her right, though. Anyway, I have tried every method I could find. I have experimented. I have given it a very sincere effort and been wary that I might be psyching myself out. I employ a lot of mind over matter. But I still have a very sensitive gag reflex. Currently the most successful option is to push the pill almost down my throat with my finger and then use a little juice to slide it over the edge. I have a talented tongue, and it is capable of crazy acrobatics to maneuver a pill back to the front of my mouth if it makes accidental contact. Still, I regularly choke and gag on my daily pills. It’s a normal sound around our house.

BUT!

A few days ago I happened across an article about weird body phenomena, and how the nerves in the outer ear can trigger involuntary tiny spasms in the throat. …And that they can stop a throat tickle. So I thought, if a tickle, maybe another kind of sensation? Like a gag perhaps? And so far it’s working. Perfectly. I look like a total freak, I’m sure, but if I sort of tickle my ear while I’m taking the pills, it seems to totally cut off the gagging feeling. Sometimes it starts, I tickle, and it’s gone, allowing me to get the pill down successfully. I had never heard of this method. Even the article I was reading didn’t make this connection. I claim to have invented it.

Anyway, preliminary trials suggest that as long as I give myself a freaky ear massage, I CAN SWALLOW PILLS!!

You have no idea what a difference this makes in my life.

And my ears have never been more relaxed.

Do you take a billion supplements like I do?  Do you feel like a crazy old lady/man when you do?  Can you swallow them without sounding like a cat in the process of hairball formation?  …Just me, eh?

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8 Responses to “How To Swallow Pills Without Gagging”

  1. IfByYes says:

    Bizarre! Babby has been pulling at his ear lately, but doesn’t seem to be in pain. Maybe he’s instinctively warding off sore throat and coughing?

  2. Patent that sucker!
    Also, when do we get to hear about you vomiting on your ceiling? Next post? It’s ok, I’ll wait.

  3. Zannah says:

    I’ve always had a problem with the horse pills they call multi-vitamins. I’ll try your trick and let you know if it’s universal.

  4. Geege says:

    WOW!! I’m soo trying this. I have a terrible gag reflex which shows itself every day when I brush my teeth. I can’t wait to see if massaging my ear helps that as well.

    I take pills in a crazy way too – I can’t just throw it in my mouth without already having liquid present…then I have to tip my head back to ensure they get back there. I was about 14 before I stopped taking liquid Tylenol for little kids when I had a headache just for fear of taking pills.

  5. Curiosity says:

    You guys have to tell me if this helps you take the edge off too. I’m so curious to know if it works on everybody, or just some people…

  6. CynthiaO says:

    I seriously used this when I had a tickle in my throat this weekend and it worked like a charm! That is some good grisgris you be sharin’ Miss Curiosity! :)

  7. spokeit says:

    Whoa- I’ve got to try that! My psychiatrist prescribed me a large dose with pills that are really light- so I take like ten.

  8. Curiosity says:

    So far my very non-scientific trials suggest that it’s great for everything short of sticking my toothbrush down my throat.

    Also that I really shouldn’t stick my toothbrush down my throat for science.

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