CALGARY – Researchers in Calgary have discovered it doesn’t take a spoonful of sugar to make even the biggest pills slide smoothly down tiny throats.
They’ve found that the secret is all in the tilt of the head.
Bonnie Kaplan studied five different positions people can take to make the medicine go down — staring straight ahead, or looking up, down, to the left or to the right.
Pressure in the throat varies depending on which way the head faces. That means just a little turn can make a big difference in how easy it is to send something down the hatch.
“We swallow with our head straight ahead over 600 times a day. And so asking someone to swallow off-centre is a shock,” Kaplan said Monday. “They’re just so disoriented. It feels so weird, they don’t like it.”
Still, her study showed the straight-ahead method was best for only about a third of adults who tried all five positions.
“That means maybe only a third of us are swallowing the most comfortable position, even when we’re good at swallowing pills.”
Kaplan worked with more than 30 seriously ill children and found that within 14 days all could be taught to take adult-sized pills easily. Working with tiny candy at first, she taught them tricks to make the pills slide down, including a “duck shake” of the head that makes a pill move back on the tongue before being swallowed. Over time, the candies were increased in size until they were the size of a large adult pill.
Ten-year-old Alysa Hauck was one of Kaplan’s first subjects. Alysa has to take several medications every day for an auto-immune disorder. Before she could swallow pills, her family had to haul along bottles with liquid drugs in coolers on every outing, which made travel and playing with other kids difficult.
“We couldn’t go on trips that much, or we had to take the cooler with us because they had to be in the fridge,” recalled Alysa. “And I couldn’t go on sleepovers.”
She was also starting to resist taking the medication, said her dad, Dirk Hauck.
“As she got older, it became increasingly difficult. They’re not raspberry- or strawberry-flavoured. They’re horrible flavours.”
Kaplan says other children in the study were confined to hospital before learning to swallow pills because the only other option was to receive medication intravenously. Some families needed to make the drive from British Columbia every two weeks because a liquid medication expired quickly.
She said one teenage girl was so terrified of taking her pills she’d get physically ill.
“I found out she used to sit and stare at her medication after dinner on the table for an hour, and would be so anxious she’d go and vomit out of her anxiety. And now it’s nothing for her to swallow a pill. That’s a huge improvement in family life.”
Alysa now fits all of her pills for one day — as many as 12 — into a small container. She can visit with friends whenever she wants, and has even taught both her brother and mother to swallow medication more easily.
Her mom, Fabiola Hauck, said the simple act of swallowing pills gave Alysa more control over her life.
“Before that, she was just at home. Now she can be a regular kid.”
The researchers have created a video to help people figure out the best way for them to swallow pills. It can be found atwww.ucalgary.ca/research4kids/pillswallowing