8 Unexpected Injuries You Can Get While Eating

Running with the bulls, base jumping, riding a motorcycle — all things you know are dangerous. But biting into a burger? Seems like you should be able to manage that without ending up in the emergency room.

Who knew eating could be so dangerous? (Image: Bobex-73/iStock/GettyImages)

Unfortunately, hundreds of people have learned otherwise. And it's not just burgers that pose a risk to your health. From margarita burns to steakhouse syndrome, here are eight unexpected — and often gruesome — injuries you can get from eating and drinking.

1. Swallowing Wire Grill Brush Bristles

Nothing like biting into a juicy grilled hamburger only to end up with a wire bristle stuck in your esophagus. That's what happened to almost 1,700 people who landed in the ER between 2002 and 2014 because of injuries from wire-bristle grill brushes, according to a 2016 study from the journal Otolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery. (The bristle falls off during cleaning, sticking to the grates before becoming embedded in a piece of meat.)

"One little bristle unrecognized could get lodged in various areas of the body, whether in the throat, tonsil or neck region," said study co-author David Chang, M.D., associate professor at the MU School of Medicine, in a release. Alternatively, the bristle could get stuck further downstream in places like the esophagus, stomach or the intestine. Fortunately, you can clean your grill without a wire brush: Try a pumice stone or bristle-free coil brush instead.

Is your protein powder causing stomach discomfort? (Image: Mizina/iStock/GettyImages)

2. GI Problems From Protein Powder

Guzzling protein shakes could lead to some unexpected stomach troubles. Take the 2015 case report of a 35-year-old man who showed up at the doctor's office complaining of abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. The patient, a fitness fanatic, had been downing three to four souped-up shakes a day.

It turns out the shakes contained casein powder, a slow-digesting protein that doctors suspect led to what's known as a gastric bezoar, basically a hard mass of indigestible material that typically forms in the stomach, says gastroenterologist Saurabh Sethi, M.D.

Dr. Sethi points out that developing a bezoar from drinking protein shakes, while possible, is "very unusual." Instead, he says, "Persimmon fruit accounts for the majority of cases." (Our bodies have a tough time breaking down the fiber-rich fruit.) If you do end up with a bezoar, the treatment is relatively simple: A 2013 study found that carbonated soda (like Diet Coke) can help dissolve the masses in most patients.

3. Choking on Chia Seeds

Sure, chia seeds are an excellent source of protein, fiber and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. But there are no shortcuts when it comes to consuming the popular superfood, as one man learned after he chased a spoonful of dry chia seeds with a glass of water.

"Chia seeds have the ability to absorb up to 27 times their weight in water," said Rebecca Rawl, M.D., M.P.H., who presented the above case at a meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology. Once the seeds expand, they form a gooey, gel-like substance that can get caught in the esophagus, particularly in people with a history of swallowing problems.

The takeaway: You can enjoy your chia seeds — just allow them to expand (in a smoothie or yogurt) before swallowing.

Sloppy drinking could lead to skin blisters. (Image: Mockford & Bonetti/Corbis Documentary/GettyImages)

4. Margarita Burns

Attention, margarita lovers: You may want to go easy on the limes — especially if you're day-drinking outdoors. The reason? A chemical in limes can react with sunlight, triggering a skin condition known as phytophotodermatitis. (Of course, you'd have to be squeezing the limes yourself — or just a really sloppy drinker — to be affected.)

"For most people with phytophotodermatitis, the symptoms may be uncomfortable, but only mild to moderate in severity," says Darria Long Gillespie, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Tennessee. Wet skin, sweating and heat can make symptoms worse, and some people may experience "redness, swelling and even blisters akin to a burn," says Dr. Gillespie.

Occasionally, a topical steroid may be needed to treat the problem, though usually a cold compress and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory are enough. "Most importantly, keep the affected areas out of the sun until they're healed!" Dr. Gillespie says.

5. Swallowing a Toothpick

You'd know if you swallowed a toothpick, right? Apparently not. In a 2014 review of 136 toothpick-swallowing incidents, more than half the patients hadn't realize they'd ingested the little stick. Instead, patients showed up at the ER with stomach pain, which was eventually traced to the toothpick with the help of CT scans, ultrasounds or endoscopy.

In that same review, researchers found that the toothpick most often ended up perforating the intestines, and surgery was required 58 percent of the time. Even scarier, nearly 10 percent of patients died from their injuries. (The toothpick can lead to an infection, which may spread to the blood and result in organ failure.)

In a 2010 issue of BMJ Case Reports, doctors noted that eating quickly and carelessly (a.k.a. inhaling your food) and drinking while eating (i.e., being totally blitzed) might make you more predisposed to swallowing a toothpick. So you might want to slow down and sober up the next time you're about to bite into a toothpick-impaled appetizer or oversize hoagie.

Remember mom’s advice: Chew your food well before swallowing. (Image: RichLegg/E+/GettyImages)

6. Steakhouse Syndrome

Getting a wad of meat stuck in your esophagus is so common that doctors have a name for it: steakhouse syndrome. The more official diagnosis — food bolus impaction — actually refers to any food that's caught in your esophagus. It won't affect your breathing, but it can lead to uncomfortable chest pain.

In some cases, the food will either come back up or make its way down your gullet on its own (once the muscles of your esophagus relax). If that doesn't happen, a doctor will likely have to perform an endoscopy to move things along, says Dr. Sethi. The good news? "This condition can be prevented by chewing food really well," Dr. Sethi says.

7. Thunderclap Headache

Eating crazy-hot peppers (like the ominously named Carolina Reaper) can lead to a condition known as thunderclap headaches, which are as painful as they sound. Named for how quickly and intensely they come on, the headaches are felt around the head, neck and sometimes even upper back. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, confusion and numbness.

In one 2018 case published in the medical journal BMJ Case Reports, a man with thunderclap headaches (from eating the aforementioned Reaper) was diagnosed with reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome, or RCVS, likely caused by the blazing-hot pepper.

While this was the first instance of pepper-related RCVS (a condition causing the blood vessels of the brain suddenly constrict), eating cayenne peppers has previously been linked to the sudden constriction of coronary arteries and heart attack, the writers note. So go easy on the hot sauce. And if you do eat something scorching, the American Chemical Society officially recommends dairy (like milk, ice cream or cottage cheese) to cool things down.

8. Fish Bone Caught in Your Throat

Of all the things you can accidentally swallow, doctors say fish bones are the most common. "For most people who swallow a very small bone, while it may irritate the tissues while it goes down the throat and esophagus, the bone will pass through on its own and not get stuck," says Dr. Gillespie.

If the bone does get caught, it's typically in the larynx (at the back of the mouth) or a little further down in the esophagus. Symptoms range from mild discomfort to difficulty swallowing and breathing, says Dr. Gillespie. While the bone can often be removed with a tongue depressor and forceps (if it's visible) or with an endoscope and forceps, it really is best to debone your fish thoroughly before eating.

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