Pill Swallowing Troubles, Not So Simple After All

By Roger Heilos, Medical Products Design Engineer

The History of Pill Swallowing Problems & Solutions

There have been numerous attempts at addressing the problem of pill swallowing over the years. In fact, the first attempt at a pill swallowing device was patented by Joseph Yates of London, England in 1890, over 115 years ago. Difficulty with swallowing pills is not a new issue, it has just never been fully addressed or resolved.

The psychological and physiological difficulties experienced by many people in swallowing tablets or pills are well known. The usual method is to place the medication in the mouth or on your tongue with the fingers and then take a mouthful of water to wash the medication down the throat. Sounds simple enough. But to about 20 million people, this simple thing can spell torture everyday. Many people experience the fear of gagging or nausea during the time interval between placing the pill in their mouth and taking a drink of water to wash the pill down. This is commonly known as pill anxiety.

Types of Pill Anxiety

Pill anxiety can take many forms and it affects all age groups. For the toddler aged 4-5 years old trying to take a doctor’s medication for the first time, the experience can be catastrophic. There is the fear and panic of choking, both with the child as well as the parent. At the complete opposite end of the scale, many adult senior citizens experience the common “dry throat” syndrome looking at a list of daily medications to take. There are also large numbers of elderly and bedridden patients in hospitals and nursing homes, where many suffer from loss of mobility, dementia or other conditions affecting their cognitive abilities. Still other groups may suffer difficulty swallowing due to conditions such as mild Parkinsons or Dysphagia which may interfere with their normal ability to swallow.

And still there is another group of individuals between ages 5 and 75. They are generally healthy and sometimes athletic. You see them everyday going to school, going to the office, in the supermarkets and gas stations. They collectively consume tons of medications, dietary supplements, vitamins and the like everyday. A surprisingly large percentage of them have pill anxiety to some extent. They hide pills in food. They cut pills into small pieces to take them or crush them into powder. 40% of American adults age 18-40 admitted to not taking their doctor-prescribed medications as instructed. They skipped doses or ended the prescription early to avoid swallowing-related anxieties, yet they had no difficulties swallowing food or water.

As if this problem wasn’t bad enough, let’s throw in the time-release and coated pills. The time-release tablet cannot be cut or crushed because that defeats the purpose of the medication. It is meant to be swallowed whole and dissolve into your system over time. Coated pills are usually so foul tasting that if you cut into them exposing the medicine inside and then tried to swallow the powder residue, it might reach your stomach but that is as far as it would get before you gagged it back up. The taste of some of these pills is beyond belief. Some people, children included, have been known to pass out from biting into a coated pill.

The problems associated with pill swallowing are endless. You would think that after 115 years, someone would come up with a solution to this problem.

Attempts to Solve Pill Swallowing Problems

In December of 1890, Mr. Yates identified the problem of pill swallowing and designed a “device for facilitating taking pills,” as he called it. It was a simple wire basket that attached to the inside of a “drinking vessel” or glass. You placed a pill on the basket above the waterline and placed this device in your mouth and drank. The water would propel or carry the pill into your mouth and the problem of pill swallowing solved. The problem was that he never marketed this device for whatever reason, so pill swallowing problems continued.

Seventy years would pass before Leo Von Gunten of Akron, Ohio would patent his drinking vessel. The concept was similar to Yates, except it is 1960 and plastics are starting to become popular. His idea was to mold a pill basket into a drinking vessel below the rim of the glass, but above the waterline. Again, you would place the pill in the said basket and drink. This too met with failure and was never marketed.

There have been about 20 attempts at designing a pill-swallowing device over the last 30 years or so. They have all met with failure and were never brought to market. Some were so complicated with sliding doors and compartments and fold-down lids that the average healthy person could not operate them.Order Oralflo - The Pill Swallowing Cup

Help for Swallowing Pills

The concept is so simple. The water in a cup should carry the pill into your mouth and then you swallow the water and pill together. It sounds simple, but the process is really very complicated. It is so complicated that for 115 years, no one has designed a product that is simple to use. The problem has been this – all previous devices have had substantial surface areas of contact between the pill and the device, which results in the pill adhering to the side walls of the said device, meaning the pill
gets stuck. Also, these devices have all had vertical water pathways. That means the user has to tilt their head way back to get water to flow. This is not good for elderly or people with back or neck problems. This is probably why all of the previously mentioned devices were designed to solve the problem, but actually created more problems and were never brought to market.


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