If you’ve ever attended a college fraternity party, you’ve likely wondered how some people are able to drink down an entire beer in a single gulp! This is due to the differences between individuals in how they experience sensations within the pharynx that might cause the throat to contract.
What does it mean to have a gag reflex?
When a person experiences an involuntary and highly unpleasant spasm in the back of the throat, this is known as a pharyngeal or gag reflex.
It is the body’s safety mechanism to prevent potentially dangerous objects in the mouth from entering the throat. Thus, it helps prevent choking when the situation does not involve the normal process of swallowing.
How do you know you have a gag reflex?
About 37% of healthy adults do not have a gag reflex at all according to a study published in The Lancet. (1)
On the other hand, 10-15% of people have a hypersensitive response where even the slightest sensation can trigger involuntary throat contraction.
The remaining half of people have a normal response to non-swallowing sensations in the pharynx.
Suffice it to say that if you have the gag reflex, you know it as you’ve no doubt experienced its unpleasant effects at least a few times along the way!
What Triggers Gag Reflex?
Touching the back of the throat, the roof of the mouth, the back of the tongue, or the area around the tonsils is enough to trigger a gagging throat spasm in many people.
This can lead to a fear of the dentist and difficulty eating sticky foods. In severe cases, it can result in picky eating and malnourishment. One of my sisters has a hypersensitive gag reflex which causes difficulties when brushing her teeth.
The good news is that this bothersome reflex can be turned off temporarily using acupressure.
How to Stop Gagging?
One of the most frequent emails I receive is from parents who have trouble giving their children supplements such as cod liver oil. Some children gag quite severely when taking any supplement even in liquid form off the spoon. It can leave a big mess on the floor over and over again.
In the video below, I demonstrate exactly how to use acupressure to your advantage to temporarily halt the gag reflex to enable your family to take supplements easily with no gagging and no mess.
While there are a number of acupressure points that can assist with shutting down the gag reflex, there is one that by far is the easiest for children (or you!) to perform.
Here’s the single step required to stop the gag reflex:
Make a tight fist with your left hand with the thumb inside and hold it for a few seconds.
The picture above shows you exactly what to do.
What if You’ve Already Started to Gag?
This acupressure technique will work even if your gag reflex has already been stimulated and your child’s throat is starting to spasm.
Just quickly do what I show you below and the throat constriction will magically turn off! In our family’s experience, the gag reflex is halted for about 30 seconds when this acupressure technique is employed.
My husband uses this technique occasionally when drinking ultra-strong homemade kefir that is fermented for several days.
The kefir is so sour that if you drink it too quickly, you can’t help but feel a wave of gagging coming on! When this happens, he uses this acupressure position to save himself from a highly unpleasant experience.
Acupressure to Resolve Gagging
How does acupressure work to temporarily halt involuntary throat contraction or gagging? This technique is very similar to acupuncture except that anyone can do it.
While acupuncture requires a licensed therapist and employs needles to stimulate pressure points on the body, acupressure uses gentle to firm finger pressure alone. This makes it ideal for self-treatment where and when necessary.
This method is scientifically backed too. In 2008, the Journal of the American Dental Association published a study that found that pressure applied to a specific point on the palm of the hand consistently altered the severity of the gag reflex. (4)
These techniques are helpful for other situations as well such as to relieve pain and enhance relaxation. I’ve used acupuncture to induce labor and acupressure to prevent seasickness when on a cruise. I’ve used the same technique to prevent carsickness and airsickness in my children when necessary too.
The video below demonstrates what to do to temporarily halt the gag reflex. It is particularly effective should you need to swallow some pills or brush your teeth.
You can also hold your hand in this position while in the dental chair to prevent gagging during tooth cleanings.
Other Ways to Help with Gag Reflex
While using acupressure is helpful to use in the short term, over the long haul you probably will want to take steps to desensitize yourself to gagging.
One of the easiest ways to do this is by using your toothbrush. (5)
- Start the process by brushing your tongue every time your clean your teeth.
- Brush for about 15 seconds on a spot as far back on the tongue as you can tolerate without gagging.
- Repeat every day until you no longer feel an urge to gag coming on at all.
- Move the toothbrush slightly further back on the tongue and brush on that spot for about 15 seconds, again repeating every day until there is desensitization.
- Continue moving the brush further back in the mouth until you are able to brush the entire visible length of the tongue without discomfort. The entire process could take several weeks to accomplish.
(1) Pharyngeal sensation in healthy subjects
(2) Hate going to the dentist? Acupuncture could help ease some anxiety: study
(3) Why Does Making A Fist Stop Gagging?
(4) Altering the Gag Reflex Via a Palm Pressure Point
(5) How to Desensitize the Gag Reflex
Holding the chin towards the chest
I appreciate you writing this article. I really enjoy your articles and appreciate all the research you do. My youngest son has a bad gag reflex, but he really wants to resolve it so I think he will practice your suggestions. Thank you, Sarah!
I have tried this many times and it is not effective for me. I find that putting a small amount of toothpaste in my mouth cools my throat and really helps to calm the gag reflex. Smelling some lavender essential oil helps, too.
Doesn’t work for me. I just puked blueberries and iced tea after gagging on something.
In my experience if you need your gag relflex out of the picture for longer periods (say 15min) of time try pinching the area between your thumb and forefinger. If its starts hurting its probably not going to supress your gag relfex much longer, but while you’re applying pressure with no pain it should help.
I attempt this every time I brush my tongue, which often causes me to gag, and it helps, but it’s not foolproof. It seems to dull my gag reflex by about 30 to 70 percent, but the reflex is still there.
Why do you say use your left hand? Will this work with either hand?
Sarah Pope MGA
Try it and see. Acupressure authorities recommend the left.
A dear friend at the dentist office I worked at found a way to reduce a negative outcome while taking impressions. Holding the chin towards the chest (like a cobra flares out sides of neck and head lengthens) while patient makes only slow , long breathing was effective.
I gag easy at smells, even dog urine or smelly trash, I know it’s in my head but I can’t stop it. What will help stop throwing up over stupid little things? ?