Is Getting Choked Out Dangerous?

A grappler’s most dangerous weapons are his strangulations. While strikes and joint locks can be endured with strong enough will and determination, choking someone out of consciousness brings finality to a conflict like few other things can. Getting choked out is not rare in BJJ and MMA competitions, but how dangerous is it?

Losing consciousness due to strangulation is called getting choked out in martial arts; for most people, it is not too dangerous. Studies and analyses show that if the choke is held for less than one minute, it has no lasting damage.

Does this mean you are left only with the bad sensations that go hand in hand with chokes? For the most part, yes, but there are situations, conditions, and details every BJJ practitioner should know and be fully aware of the dangers of strangulations.

The Anatomy Of Being Choked Out

Getting choked out means losing consciousness due to strangulation or a choke.

Technically speaking, a choke is a technique restricting the airflow to the lungs, while strangulation is the action of closing the carotid arteries in the neck, thus stopping the blood and airflow to the brain.

In reality, both chokes and strangulation are commonly referred to as chokes in jiu-jitsu but are divided into two main categories:

  • Blood chokes (strangulations)- Triangle, Arm-triangle, Anaconda
  • Air chokes (chokes)-Guillotine, Gogoplata, Ezekiel

Air chokes consist of compression to the neck, which blocks the trachea, larynx, or laryngopharynx. They are extremely unpleasant and often excruciatingly painful and can lead to a sore throat, changes in voice, gagging, and other similar pleasant conditions.

But the windpipe is rigid enough that it’s difficult to be completely shut off, and getting choked out by an air choke requires minutes of pressure.

On the other hand, blood chokes cause you to be “choked out” and lose consciousness. Blood flow to the brain is supplied by two major pathways: the internal carotid arteries and the vertebral arteries.

The internal carotid artery lies at the angle formed where the back of the jaw meets the neck and is very susceptible to compression. Compressing these arteries is the goal of a well-executed blood chokes.

A tight blood choke restricts the blood and oxygen flow to the brain and renders a person unconscious. This process takes only about 8 to 14 seconds, so blood chokes are considered the most effective submission type.

Unlike air chokes and painful submission holds, which can be endured by the sheer power of will or even by sacrificing a limb, a blood choke will put you to sleep regardless of your mental fortitude and desire to win. It’s simple biology.

I am sure you’ve seen a lot of people get choked out in competition and even in the gym; perhaps you’ve even experienced it yourself. Once the pressure on the neck is relieved, consciousness is quickly regained without needing outside help. But this begs the very important question:

How safe is getting choked out?

Does Getting Choked Out Cause Permanent Damage?

Does Getting Choked Out Cause Permanent Damage

Thankfully, getting choked out in most cases does not cause permanent damage. This is the case even when the person exhibits worrying symptoms like snoring or even light seizures. The key to the relatively safe execution of blood chokes is to release them early.

Permanent damage, loss of brain cells, and even death are possible, but only if the strangulation is held for several minutes. Brain cells start to die after the first minute of constant pressure on the arteries, and permanent damage occurs after roughly 3 minutes. Around the 5th minute mark, the strangulation becomes lethal.

Holding someone unconscious for minutes cannot happen by accident, so the good news is that the chance of suffering permanent damage is minuscule.

This also means terrible referees in BJJ and MMA are unlikely to cause harm by letting someone keep a choke longer than needed.

A tight strangulation roughly takes 10 seconds to put someone to sleep, and even if the ref is just asleep as the guy gets strangled and lets the hold stay for 10 more seconds, it’s still far from the 1-minute threshold where things start to get more serious. 

This is not to say getting put to sleep by a choke is good for you, but as far as we know, it’s not so bad either.

Still, unfortunate conditions may cause more serious effects on a small percentage of people. As explained by Dr. Johnny Benjamin, next to the carotid artery sits the carotid sinus and vagus nerve, and some people have a condition that makes their sinus hypersensitive.

When compression is applied to the area, the body can respond by decreasing blood pressure and heart rate, leading to an irregular heartbeat.

So, while getting choked out for healthy people presents no lasting danger, it can be a real problem for a small percentage of people, including those with cardiac disorders, it can be a real problem.

What To Do When You Choke Someone Out

We can practice chokes safely thanks to the tap. You are admitting defeat by tapping, and your partners and opponents should immediately release the hold. I am sure you’ve heard the saying “tap or nap.”

There are many ways to escape chokes, and the line between being miserable and going to sleep is often razor-thin. As we get more experience, we push the boundaries further and further, and getting choked out or choking someone out is not uncommon.

But what do you do if you choke someone out?

The first thing is to release the choke when the person is limp. As I’ve explained, lasting damage takes minutes to build up, but there’s still no need to push it. If you feel the opponent or training partner is not resisting anymore, immediately release the pressure.

The common reaction officials at competitions do is to lift the unconscious athlete’s legs to help blood flow to the brain. But according to Dr. Warren Wang, this is unnecessary because the loss of consciousness is not due to low blood pressure.

Instead, the athlete must be turned to his side in the recovery position. This position prevents the person from choking on his tongue. Removing the mouthguard is also advisable. The recovery position keeps the airway open and the neck safe from possible seizures. 

How Does Getting Choked Out Feel

How Does Getting Choked Out Feel

Let me tell you, getting choked out does not feel good. Beginners tap from sheer panic before they go to sleep, and more experienced people tap when they feel they have no chance of escaping the choke.

The moment before you black out can feel different, but lightheadedness is always present because of the lack of blood flow and the decreased oxygen flow. Here are a few things you may feel when you are close to getting choked out. You may experience just one or all at the same time.

  • Lightheadedness
  • Narrowing vision
  • Buzzing sounds
  • Seeing stars

And once you lose consciousness, you don’t feel anything. Then you suddenly come back, and after a couple of minutes, there are usually no leftover effects besides the depressive thought that you were just choked out.

Summary On The Dangers Of Getting Choked Out

Getting choked out does not leave lasting damage if the pressure is released soon after losing consciousness. Most people will go to sleep in around 10 seconds, while the real danger comes around the 1-minute mark of pressure.

Still, getting fully choked out poses a danger, especially for people with preexisting medical conditions, so it’s not something you should experience often, and it’s usually better to tap when you start seeing stars and hearing buzzing sounds.