What Is the Heimlich Maneuver & How Do You Perform It?

ProTrainings What Is the Heimlich Maneuver & How Do You Perform It?

On an average Monday in May of 2016, a woman in a senior living community began to choke on the food she was eating. According to her rescuer, the woman’s lips began to become puffy and she was clearly unable to breathe. She needed immediate help.

Luckily for her, the man next to her, named Dr. Henry Heimlich, was able to rescue her by performing the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge the food causing her to choke. Yes, it was that Dr. Heimlich – the very one who invented the technique used to save her life. But what exactly is this technique he pioneered? 

Read on to find out what the Heimlich maneuver is, when it was invented, and when and how to do the Heimlich maneuver on yourself or others in need.

The Heimlich Maneuver Explained

The Heimlich maneuver is a popular and internationally known technique used to help someone who is choking. Most of us have seen it in movies and pop culture references, but what is this technique actually meant to do?

Simply put, the Heimlich maneuver is a first-aid procedure used to treat upper airway obstruction caused by a foreign body. This technique uses the leverage of remaining air left in the lungs to help force an object out of the airway through the application of quick forceful upward thrusts. 

So whether or not cartoon cats and dogs are using the proper application of hands, fists, and pressure on the diaphragm, it’s important to understand where this technique began and how it has grown since its inception so many years ago. 

The Invention & Naming of the Heimlich Maneuver

Dr. Henry Heimlich was a thoracic surgeon who spent much of his career observing the pressing issues he faced in his day-to-day experience and setting about finding solutions for them. 

In the decade before his discovery, according to a journal published in the National Library of Medicine, the sixth most common cause of accidental death was choking on food, toys, and other various objects. 

In his search for a solution, Dr. Heimlich observed that canines who had an obstruction in their airways were able to be saved with a rapid thrust beginning in the abdominal cavity that helped propel the foreign object out of the body. This allowed normal respiration to resume. 

Subdiaphragmatic Pressure

It was this realization that led to the original 1974 naming of the abdominal thrust technique: “subdiaphragmatic pressure.” While the technique and importance of this skill were no less valuable at the time, Dr. Heimlich shared with NPR in an interview before his death that he believed the technique wouldn’t have caught on as well without a new name. 

In his interview with NPR, Dr. Heimlich explained that when formally reviewing the procedure, the American Medical Association shared with him that so many lives had been saved by the procedure in less than two months that they wanted to name the procedure after him. It was at this time the name was officially changed to the Heimlich maneuver.

When to Use the Heimlich Maneuver

You might have observed a cartoon character who knows how to do the Heimlich maneuver springing into action when another character is unable to breathe and beginning to change colors. This picture is mostly correct, although the color changing of victims to plaid and polka dots hasn’t been observed by our experienced trainers!

A few key characteristics of someone who is choking and should receive the Heimlich maneuver are as follows: 

  • The person is conscious, but cannot breathe. They may sputter or wheeze, but cannot effectively expel air on their own. 
  • Due to lack of oxygen, the person’s lips may become bluish or gray. This is a clear sign that their life is in danger and immediate first aid is needed. 
  • The person will likely be unable to speak to ask for help. Due to the inability to expel air, speaking will be extremely difficult or impossible. 

One internationally recognized signal of choking is the use of both hands brought up to the chin, thumbs extended touching their throat while the fingers extend to create an X with the arms and hands. 

When to Wait to Do the Heimlich Maneuver

Oftentimes, when someone begins to cough and utter the words, “I’m choking,” it can be instinctual to use your training to help dislodge the object. However, good intentioned as this is, if a person is still able to cough or speak, then encouraging them to try to cough up the object on their own is the best practice. 

How to Do the Heimlich Maneuver

Once you’ve identified that a person is in danger and needs immediate lifesaving measures, knowing how to do the Heimlich maneuver properly is crucial, as every second counts in an emergency. While there is general overlap to the steps of the technique, knowing how to do the Heimlich maneuver on a child is important, as there are distinct differences.

ProTrainings What Is the Heimlich Maneuver & How Do You Perform It?

On Another Adult

Once you’ve identified that a person is choking, you should begin with five quick and forceful back blows between the shoulder blades to see if this is able to help dislodge the object. If this is unsuccessful, you should begin the Heimlich maneuver.

  1. With the person standing up, position yourself behind them with your arms around them at waist level. 
  2. Ball up one hand into a fist and place it right above their navel with your thumb touching their abdomen. 
  3. With your other hand, grab your balled up fist and pull upward and in towards the person with five quick abdominal thrusts. 
  4. This can be repeated until the person is able to begin to breathe independently or the object is removed.

If a person becomes unconscious or attempts to dislodge the object are unsuccessful, then they should be placed on the ground and chest compressions begun while having other bystanders call for emergency services. 

On a Child

A child who is over one year old should be approached in a similar process to an adult, although the adult should kneel to match the child’s height so that appropriate upward abdominal thrusts can be performed. 

One key distinction in how to do the Heimlich maneuver on a child is to be aware of using less force so as to not lift the child off the ground when performing abdominal thrusts.

On an Infant

An infant who is less than one year old has a different approach in how to do the Heimlich maneuver. Due to their size and weaker bone structure, the approach used is quite different and should follow these steps. 

  1. Hold the infant face down in the palm of your hand with the head and jaw supported. The head should be below the shoulders to help encourage gravity to expel the object. 
  2. Give five back blows with the heel of your hand to try to dislodge the object. 
  3. If the back blows are unsuccessful, turn the infant over and give five chest thrusts with two fingers on the breastbone to a depth of 1.5 inches, which is similar to CPR compressions for an infant. 
  4. Repeat this process until the child is able to breathe or cry independently.

As with anyone who is choking, if the infant is to become unconscious, immediately discontinue the Heimlich and begin CPR while calling 911. 

On Yourself

If you find yourself unable to breathe and are choking while you’re alone, knowing how to do the Heimlich maneuver on yourself can be crucial to save your life. The same steps can be applied as described above for adults, with the exception to use your own hand. 

If you’re unable to get proper upward thrusts to dislodge the object, you can bend forwards over the back of a chair or the edge of a counter to use the object to provide more effective pressure to the diaphragm. 

There’s no doubt that the Heimlich maneuver has value to medical professionals, but also to laypersons around the world. With so many people knowing how to do the Heimlich maneuver, it has saved countless people from choking in its nearly 60 years of existence. Knowing how to apply this procedure on others, as well as yourself, is invaluable.

At ProTrainings, we understand the importance of quality training that prepares you with the skills needed to render aid in a moment’s notice. So no matter if you’re required to maintain first-aid certification, are simply a concerned citizen who wants to be prepared, or are tasked to oversee the safety of staff and the public alike, ProTrainings can help.

Contact us today to learn more about how ProTrainings can make you and your staff’s first-aid training and certification process easier and more efficient.