The Heimlich maneuver is a first aid method for choking. It can be used on adults and children but isn’t recommended for infants. The Heimlich maneuver is known as abdominal thrusts, because it involves thrusting into the abdominal area. It’s a quick life-saving method, but it should only be used on conscious people who can’t breathe on their own.
The Heimlich maneuver is a first aid method for choking. Choking is when a person can’t breathe because food, a toy or another foreign item is blocking their throat or windpipe (trachea). The Heimlich maneuver is also known as abdominal thrusts. It can be used in different ways on adults and children.
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Dr. Henry Heimlich invented the Heimlich maneuver in 1974. Dr. Heimlich discovered the remaining air in a person’s lungs could be used to free (dislodge) a foreign object from their esophagus using quick, upward thrusts under their ribcage.
At first, the Heimlich maneuver didn’t catch on with the medical community. The backslap method remained the most popular first aid choking treatment for another 10 years. Eventually, the Heimlich maneuver caught on for use in conscious adults. Backslaps (back blows) are still recommended for infants, and CPR is recommended for unconscious adults, children and infants.
You should use the Heimlich maneuver if a person is conscious but choking. You can usually tell a person is choking if they can’t speak, breathe or cough. Ask the person, “Are you choking?” They may be able to cough but can’t speak to ask for help. Sometimes, their breathing and speaking becomes weaker and weaker until only gasping sounds come out. The universal choking symbol — holding your hands up and clutching your throat — is often used.
If a person is able to speak, cough or breathe, don’t attempt the Heimlich maneuver. Encourage the person to keep coughing. Sometimes a strong cough can free the foreign object. Only perform the Heimlich maneuver if a person’s life is in danger.
To perform the Heimlich maneuver, follow these steps:
The Heimlich maneuver can be performed on children. If the child is younger than 5 years old or weighs less than 45 pounds, the method should be slightly altered. The rescuer should kneel behind the child to get down to their level. Then, they should use less forceful thrusts than the typical Heimlich maneuver requires.
The Heimlich maneuver is not recommended for use on infants 12 months or younger. Instead, babies should receive backslaps (back blows).
To perform this method, follow these steps:
People who are pregnant or obese can receive the Heimlich maneuver in a slightly altered way. Instead of thrusting on the abdomen, the thrusts should be placed on the breastbone (sternum).
If you’re alone and choking, you can try to free the item by performing the Heimlich maneuver on yourself.
To perform this method, follow these steps:
You can also try leaning over a railing, chair or table edge. Then, sharply and quickly thrust your upper abdominal area against the edge.
Infants shouldn’t receive the Heimlich maneuver. In addition, if a person is unconscious, they should not receive the Heimlich maneuver. Instead, you should perform CPR.
The Heimlich maneuver is considered a safe and quick method to save lives. You don’t have to have any medical knowledge or training to perform the Heimlich maneuver. However, if the Heimlich maneuver isn’t performed correctly, serious abdominal harm can be done. If the foreign object is not removed after the first few set of thrusts, problems can occur. The most common complications of the Heimlich maneuver are broken ribs and holes in the gastrointestinal tract. Other rare abdominal complications can happen, but in a life-or-death situation, performing the Heimlich maneuver is still recommended.
Young children are at a high risk of choking. To prevent your child from choking:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
The Heimlich maneuver is a first aid method for choking. Choking is when someone can’t breathe because of a blockage (obstruction) in their upper airway. Food, a toy or another small item could be blocking their throat or windpipe. The Heimlich maneuver can be used on adults and children but isn’t recommended for infants. The Heimlich maneuver is performed by wrapping your arms around a person, making a fist with one hand and clasping it with the other. You place your fists between the person’s ribcage and belly button and thrust your hands into their abdomen until the object is freed. The Heimlich maneuver can be a life-saving rescue technique, but it should only be used if the person can’t breathe and is conscious.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/13/2021.
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