Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Heimlich maneuver from The Columbia Encyclopedia

emergency procedure used to treat choking victims whose airway is obstructed by food or another substance. It forces air from the lungs through the windpipe, pushing the obstruction out. If the victim is standing, the rescuer wraps his (or her) arms around the victim's waist; making a fist with one hand and placing the thumb side of the fist against the abdomen just above the navel, the rescuer grasps the fist with the other hand and presses in with firm, quick, upward thrusts.

Summary Article: Heimlich Maneuver
from Gale Encyclopedia of Children's Health: Infancy Through Adolescence

The Heimlich maneuver is an emergency procedure for removing a foreign object lodged in the airway that is preventing a person from breathing. It is also known as abdominal thrusts.

Each year, between 2,800 and 4,000 children and adults die in the United States because they accidentally inhale rather than swallow food. Children are more susceptible to choking, with one child dying every five days from choking on food in the United States. More than 10,000 children are seen in hospital emergency rooms every year due to choking injuries. Choking occurs when a foreign object such as food gets stuck and blocks the trachea (windpipe), making breathing impossible. Death follows rapidly unless the food or other foreign material can be displaced from the airway. This condition is so common it has been nicknamed the “café coronary.”


In 1974, Dr. Henry Heimlich first described an emergency technique for expelling foreign material blocking the trachea. This technique, now called the Heimlich maneuver or abdominal thrusts, is simple enough that it can be performed immediately by anyone trained in the maneuver. The Heimlich maneuver is a standard part of all first aid courses.

The theory behind the Heimlich maneuver is that by compressing the abdomen below the level of the diaphragm, air is forced out of the lungs under pressure. This air dislodges the obstruction in the trachea and brings the foreign material back up into the mouth.

The Heimlich maneuver is used mainly when such solid materials as food, coins, vomit, or small toys are blocking the airway. There has been some controversy about whether the Heimlich maneuver is appropriate to use routinely on near-drowning victims. After several studies of the effectiveness of the Heimlich maneuver on reestablishing breathing in near-drowning victims, the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association both recommend that the Heimlich maneuver be used only as a last resort after traditional airway clearance techniques and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) have been tried repeatedly and failed; or if it is clear that a solid foreign object is blocking the airway.


The Heimlich maneuver can be performed on all people. Modifications are necessary if the person choking is very obese, pregnant, a child, or an infant. Indications that a person's airway is blocked include:

  • inability to speak or cry out

  • face turning blue from lack of oxygen

  • desperate grabbing at the throat

  • weak cough with labored breathing producing a highpitched noise

  • all of the above, followed by unconsciousness

Illustration showing the three ways to perform the Heimlich maneuver: with choking victim standing, with victim lying down, and on an infant.

Performing the Heimlich maneuver on adults

To perform the Heimlich maneuver on a conscious adult, the rescuer stands behind the affected person, who may be either sitting or standing. The rescuer makes a fist with one hand and places it, thumb toward the person choking, below the rib cage and above the waist. The rescuer encircles the other person's waist, placing the other hand on top of the fist.

In a series of six to ten sharp and distinct thrusts upward and inward, the rescuer attempts to develop enough pressure to force the foreign object back up the trachea. If the maneuver fails, it is repeated. It is important not to give up if the first attempt fails. As the choking person is deprived of oxygen, the muscles of the trachea relax slightly. Because of this loosening, it is possible that a foreign object may be expelled on a second or third attempt.

If the individual choking is unconscious, the rescuer should place the person supine on the floor; bend the chin forward; make sure the tongue is not blocking the airway; and feel in the mouth for any foreign objects, being careful not to push them further into the airway. The rescuer kneels astride the choking person's thighs and places the fists between the bottom of the choking person's breastbone and navel. The rescuer then executes a series of six to ten sharp compressions by pushing inward and upward.

After the abdominal thrusts, the rescuer repeats the process of lifting the chin, moving the tongue, feeling for and possibly removing any foreign material. If the airway is not clear, the rescuer repeats the abdominal thrusts as often as necessary. If the foreign object has been removed, but the victim is not breathing, the rescuer starts CPR.

Performing the Heimlich maneuver under special circumstances

The main difference in performing the Heimlich maneuver on pregnant or obese individuals is in the placement of the fists. Instead of using abdominal thrusts, chest thrusts are used. The rescuer's fists are placed against the middle of the breastbone (sternum), and the motion of the chest thrust is in and downward, rather than upward. If the person choking is unconscious, the chest thrusts are similar to those used in CPR.


The technique in children over one year of age is the same as in adults, except that the amount of force used is less than that used with adults to avoid damaging a child's ribs, breastbone, and internal organs.


The rescuer sits down and positions the infant along the rescuer's forearm with the infant's face pointed toward the floor and at a lower level than the infant's chest. The rescuer's hand supports the infant's head. The forearm rests on the rescuer's own thigh for additional support. Using the heel of the other hand, the rescuer administers four or five rapid blows to the infant's back between the shoulder blades.

After administering the back blows, the rescuer sandwiches the infant between both arms. The infant is turned over so that he or she lies face up, supported by the rescuer's opposite arm. Using the free hand, the rescuer places the index and middle finger on the center of the breastbone and makes four sharp chest thrusts. This series of back blows and chest thrusts is alternated until the foreign object is expelled.


To apply the Heimlich maneuver to oneself, a choking person should make a fist with one hand and place it in the middle of the body at a spot above the navel and below the breastbone, then grasp the fist with the other hand and push sharply inward and upward. If this fails, the choking person should press the upper abdomen over the back of a chair, edge of a table, porch railing or something similar, and thrust up and inward until the object is dislodged.


If possible, have someone nearby call 911 while the rescuer performs the Heimlich maneuver.

It is important to have training and practice in the correct use of the maneuver. Incorrect application of the Heimlich maneuver can damage the chest, ribs, heart, or internal organs of the person on whom it is performed. People may also vomit after being treated with the Heimlich maneuver. It is important to prevent aspiration of the vomitus.


Any adult, adolescent, or responsible older child can be trained to perform the Heimlich maneuver. Knowing how to perform it may save someone's life. Before doing the maneuver, it is important to determine whether the airway is completely blocked. If the choking person can talk or cry, the Heimlich maneuver is not appropriate. If the airway is not completely blocked, the choking person should be allowed to try to cough up the foreign object without assistance.


Once the obstruction is removed, most people who experience an episode of choking recover without any further care. Those who have an obstruction that cannot be dislodged but are able to breathe should be taken to an emergency room for treatment.


Many people vomit after being treated with the Heimlich maneuver. Depending on the length and severity of the choking episode, the person may need to be taken to a hospital. In addition, even when the maneuver is performed correctly, the person being treated often suffers bruises in the abdominal area. Occasionally, one or more ribs of the choking person may be broken during administration of the Heimlich maneuver. The elderly are more likely to suffer bruises or broken ribs during the maneuver than younger adults.

Applying the Heimlich maneuver too vigorously may result in an injury to the internal organs of the choking person. There may be some local pain and tenderness at the point where the rescuer's fist was placed. In infants, a rescuer should never attempt to sweep the baby's mouth without looking to remove foreign material. This is likely to push the material farther down the trachea. If the foreign material is not removed, the person choking will die from lack of oxygen.


The Heimlich maneuver usually results in the expulsion and removal of an obstruction in the throat; in many situations, the person's life is saved. The choking person suffers no permanent effects from the episode.

Parental concerns

Because most choking incidents occur in the home, all parents and caregivers should be trained in the Heimlich maneuver. Training is available through the American Red Cross and American Heart Association at local schools, YMCAs, and community centers.

The likelihood of choking incidents can be reduced by closely supervising infants and children while eating and playing. Most choking incidents are associated with food items, especially hot dogs, candies, grapes, nuts, popcorn, and carrots. Common nonfood items that are choking hazards include deflated balloons, buttons, coins, small balls, small toys, and toy parts. All toys should be examined to make sure they are age-appropriate and do not have loose parts.

See also Choking; First aid.

  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. First Aid, CPR, and AED Standard. 6th ed. Jones & Bartlett Sudbury MA, 2012.
  • Dvorchak, George E. Jr. The Pocket First Aid Field Guide: Treatment of Outdoor Emergencies. Skyhorse Publishing New York, 2010.
  • Heimlich, Henry J. Heimlich's Maneuvers: My Seventy Years of Lifesaving Innovation. Prometheus Books Amherst NY, 2014.
  • National Safety Council. Basic Pediatric First Aid, CPR, and AED. McGraw-Hill Higher Education Boston, 2008.
  • Chao, C. M.; C. C. Lai; C. K. Tan. “Gastric Perforation After Heimlich Maneuver.” American Journal of Medicine 125, no. 6 (June 2012): E7-E8.
  • Chillag, S., et al. “The Heimlich Maneuver: Breaking Down the Complications.” Southern Medical Journal 103 (February 2010): 147-50.
  • Drinka, P.Broken Ribs Following CPR or the Heimlich Maneuver.” Journal of the American Medical Directors Association 10 (May 2009): 283-84.
  • Lee, S. L., et al. “Complications as a Result of the Heimlich Maneuver.” Journal of Trauma 66 (March 2009): E34-E35.
  • Soroudi, A., et al. “Adult Foreign Body Airway Obstruction in the Prehospital Setting.” Prehospital Emergency Care 11 (January-March 2007): 25-29.
  • Mayo Clinic. “Choking: First Aid.” Mayo Clinic. (accessed July 20, 2015).
  • MedlinePlus. “Abdominal Thrusts.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. (accessed July 20, 2015).
  • WebMD. “Choking Rescue Procedure (Heimlich Maneuver)— Adult or Child Older Than 1 Year.” WebMD. (accessed July 20, 2015).
  • American Heart Association National Center, 7272 Greenville Ave Dallas TX 75231, 800-AHA-USA-1,
  • American Red Cross National Headquarters, 2025 E St., NW Washington, DC 20006, (202) 303-5214, (800) 733-2767,
  • L. Fleming Fallon Jr., MD, PhD, DrPH
    Rebecca J. Frey, PhD
    Jack Lasky
    COPYRIGHT 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Heimlich manoeuvre
    Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

    An emergency technique to treat someone who is choking. The rescuer embraces the choking victim from behind, beneath the ribcage, then presses a clo

    Full text Article Heimlich's maneuver
    Illustrated Dictionary of Science, Andromeda

    A remedy for choking in which another person gives the patient a vigorous bear-hug from behind, pressing upward on the upper abdomen into the...

    Full text Article abdominal thrust
    Collins Dictionary of Medicine

    An alternative to the Heimlich manoeuvre when a patient is unconscious or lying down. With the patient on his or her back, the heel of the hand...

    See more from Credo