You can live for about 3 weeks without food.
You can live for about 3 days without water.
You can only live for about 3 minutes without air.
Breath play is the ultimate form of edge play and is a hard limit for many BDSM players. Jay Wiseman wrote an expansive essay in 1997 about it and due to his standing in the community, his training as an EMT, his experiences as an emergency medical instructor, and his personal knowledge of Lifestyle practitioners who were jailed due to the death of a play partner involving breath play, I think this should be required reading for anyone considering this form of play or play enhancement.
I am RACK rather SSC. I don’t think that any of the more advanced forms of BD/SM play are inherently Safe or Sane. I do feel however that knowing what the risks are and understanding them and preparing for them as best we can is the responsibility of all of us. Make no mistake; the majority of people using breath play have little understanding of just what the dangers might be.
As I began preparing for this instruction, I found many sources that touted the fact that in martial arts and mixed martial arts, many of the holds and moves involve the specific purpose of rending an opponent unconscious. They reported the prevalence of this as proof of the lack of danger inherent in rending unconsciousness through these methods. I hope to dispel this notion during this class. For the best description of the details and dangers, I will let Jay Wiseman take the stage, for I know of no successful debunking of his facts or position. This essay is reprinted with his permission and can be shared and reprinted according to his conditions included at the end of the essay. Jay would like to encourage sharing of this important work.
The Medical Realities of Breath Control Play
by Jay Wiseman
As many of you know, the subject of breath control play pops up here from time to time, and I often participate in the resultant threads. I notice that I repeatedly tend to post the same basic information about the physiology of what's involved, and such "re-inventing the wheel" is unnecessary. I have therefore been working on a basic "position paper" of what's involved for some time, and here it is. Assuming that it's factually accurate (and I cordially invite informed challenge on this point), this will become my "boilerplate" statement on the matter.
Given that "any subject can be written about at any length" it has been a distinct challenge to write this article. I have tried to keep it short enough so that people will actually read it, but also make it long enough to cover what I consider are the important points. I have tried to provide relevant physiological and biochemical information, but not go so deeply into detail that the average reader would get lost. I have tried to provide basic "starting point" references for my points and concerns for those who wish to research this matter further on their own (and I certainly encourage such research), but not to provide such an exhaustive list of citations that the researcher would become overwhelmed. Hopefully, my efforts have been at least adequate. My best wishes to all.
The Medical Realities of Breath Control Play
Copyright © 1997 by Jay Wiseman, author of SM 101: A Realistic Introduction. All rights reserved.
For some time now, I have felt that the practices of suffocation and/or strangulation done in an erotic context (generically known as breath control play; more properly known as asphyxiophilia) were in fact far more dangerous than they are generally perceived to be. As a person with years of medical education and experience, I know of no way whatsoever that either suffocation or strangulation can be done in a way that does not intrinsically put the recipient at risk of cardiac arrest. (There are also numerous additional risks; more on them later.) Furthermore, and my *biggest* concern, I know of no reliable way to determine when such a cardiac arrest has become imminent.
Often the first detectable sign that an arrest is approaching is the arrest itself. Furthermore, if the recipient does arrest, the probability of resuscitating them, even with optimal CPR, is distinctly small. Thus the recipient is dead and their partner, if any, is in a very perilous legal situation. (The authorities could consider such deaths first-degree murders until proven otherwise, with the burden of such proof being on the defendant). There are also the real and major concerns of the surviving partner's own life-long remorse to having caused such a death, and the trauma to the friends and family members of both parties.
Some breath control fans say that what they do is acceptably safe because they do not take what they do up to the point of unconsciousness. I find this statement worrisome for two reasons: (1) You can't really know when a person is about to go unconscious until they actually do so, thus it's extremely difficult to know where the actual point of unconsciousness is until you actually reach it. (2) More importantly, unconsciousness is a symptom, not a condition in and of itself. It has numerous underlying causes ranging from simple fainting to cardiac arrest, and which of these will cause the unconsciousness cannot be known in advance.
I have discussed my concerns regarding breath control with well over a dozen SM-positive physicians, and with numerous other SM-positive health professionals, and all share my concerns. We have discussed how breath control might be done in a way that is not life-threatening, and come up blank. We have discussed how the risk might be significantly reduced, and come up blank. We have discussed how it might be determined that an arrest is imminent, and come up blank.
Indeed, so far not one (repeat, not one) single physician, nurse, paramedic, chiropractor, physiologist, or other person with substantial training in how a human body works has been willing to step forth and teach a form of breath control play that they are willing to assert is acceptably safe -- i.e., does not put the recipient at imminent, unpredictable risk of dying. I believe this fact makes a major statement.
Other "edge play" topics such as suspension bondage, electricity play, cutting, piercing, branding, enemas, water sports, and scat play can and have been taught with reasonable safety, but not breath control play. Indeed, it seems that the more somebody knows about how a human body works, the more likely they are to caution people about how dangerous breath control is, and about how little can be done to reduce the degree of risk.
In many ways, oxygen is to the human body, and particularly to the heart and brain, what oil is to a car's engine. Indeed, there's a medical adage that goes "hypoxia (becoming dangerously low on oxygen) not only stops the motor, but also wrecks the engine." Therefore, asking how one can play safely with breath control is very similar to asking how one can drive a car safely while draining it of oil.
Some people tell the "mechanics" something like, "Well, I'm going to drain my car of oil anyway, and I'm not going to keep track of how low the oil level is getting while I'm driving my car, so tell me how to do this with as much safety as possible." (They may even add someting like "Hey, I always shut the engine off before it catches fire.") They then get frustrated when the mechanics scratch their heads and say that they don't know. They may even label such mechanics as "anti-education."
A bit about my background may help explain my concerns. I was an ambulance crewman for over eight years. I attended medical school for three years, and passed my four-year boards, (then ran out of money). I am a former member of the American Academy of Family Physicians and a former American Heart Association instructor in Advanced Cardiac Life Support. I have an extensive martial arts background that includes a first-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. My martial arts training included several months of judo that involved both my choking and being choked.
I have been an instructor in first aid, CPR, and various advanced emergency care techniques for over sixteen years. My students have included physicians, nurses, paramedics, police officers, fire fighters, wilderness emergency personnel, martial artists, and large numbers of ordinary citizens. I currently offer both basic and advanced first aid and CPR training to the SM community.
During my ambulance days, I responded to at least one call involving the death of a young teenage boy who died from autoerotic strangulation, and to several other calls where this was suspected but could not be confirmed. (Family members often "sanitize" such scenes before calling 911.) Additionally, I personally know two members of my local SM community who went to prison after their partners died during breath control play.
The primary danger of suffocation play is that it is not a condition that gets worse over time (regarding the heart, anyway, it does get worse over time regarding the brain). Rather, what happens is that the more the play is prolonged, the greater the odds that a cardiac arrest will occur. Sometimes even one minute of suffocation can cause this; sometimes even less.
Quick pathophysiology lesson # 1: When the heart gets low on oxygen, it starts to fire off "extra" pacemaker sites. These usually appear in the ventricles and are thus called premature ventricular contractions -- PVC's for short. If a PVC happens to fire off during the electrical repolarization phase of cardiac contraction (the dreaded "PVC on T" phenomenon, also sometimes called "R on T") it can kick the heart over into ventricular fibrillation -- a form of cardiac arrest. The lower the heart gets on oxygen, the more PVC's it generates, and the more vulnerable to their effect it becomes, thus hypoxia increases both the probability of a PVC-on-T occurring and of its causing a cardiac arrest.
When this will happen to a particular person in a particular session is simply not predictable. This is exactly where most of the medical people I have discussed this topic with "hit the wall." Virtually all medical folks know that PVC's are both life-threatening and hard to detect unless the patient is hooked to a cardiac monitor. When medical folks discuss breath control play, the question quickly becomes: How can you tell when they start throwing PVC's? The answer is: You basically can't.
Quick pathophysiology lesson # 2: When breathing is restricted, the body cannot eliminate carbon dioxide as it should, and the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood increases. Carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) exist in equilibrium with what's called carbonic acid (H2CO3) in a reaction catalyzed by an enzyme called carbonic anhydrase. (Sorry, but I can't do subscripts in this program.)
Thus: CO2 + H2O <carbonic anhydrase> H2CO3
A molecule of carbonic acid dissociates on its own into a molecule of what's called bicarbonate (HCO3-) and an (acidic) hydrogen ion. (H+)
Thus: H2CO3 <> HCO3- and H+
Thus the overall pattern is:
H2O + CO2 <> H2CO3 <> HCO3- + H+
Therefore, if breathing is restricted, CO2 builds up and the reaction shifts to the right in an attempt to balance things out, ultimately making the blood more acidic and thus decreasing its pH. This is called respiratory acidosis. (If the patient hyperventilates, they "blow off CO2" and the reaction shifts to the left, thus increasing the pH. This is called respiratory alkalosis, and has its own dangers.)
Quick pathophysiology lesson # 3:
Again, if breathing is restricted, not only does carbon dioxide have a hard time getting out, but oxygen also has a hard time getting in. A molecule of glucose (C6H12O6) breaks down within the cell by a process called glycolysis into two molecules of pyruvate, thus creating a small amount of ATP for the body to use as energy. Under normal circumstances, pyruvate quickly combines with oxygen to produce a much larger amount of ATP. However, if there's not enough oxygen to properly metabolize the pyruvate, it is converted to lactic acid and produces one form of what's called a metabolic acidosis.
As you can see, either a build-up in the blood of carbon dioxide or a decrease in the blood of oxygen will cause the pH of the blood to fall. If both occur at the same time, as they do in cases of suffocation, the pH of the blood will plummet to life-threatening levels within a very few minutes. The pH of normal human blood is in the 7.35 to 7.45 range (slightly alkaline). A pH falling to 6.9 (or raising to 7.8) is "incompatible with life."
Past experience, either with others or with that same person, is not particularly useful. Carefully watching their level of consciousness, skin color, and pulse rate is of only limited value. Even hooking the bottom up to both a pulse oximeter and a cardiac monitor (assuming you had either piece of equipment, and they're not cheap) would be of only limited additional value.
While an experienced clinician can sometimes detect PVC's by feeling the patient's pulse, in reality the only reliable way to detect them is to hook the patient up to a cardiac monitor. The problem is that each PVC is potentially lethal, particularly if the heart is low on oxygen. Even if you "ease up" on the bottom immediately, there's no telling when the PVC's will stop. They could stop almost at once, or they could continue for hours.
In addition to the primary danger of cardiac arrest, there is good evidence to document that there is a very real risk of cumulative brain damage if the practice is repeated often enough. In particular, laboratory studies of repeated brief interruption of blood flow to the brains of animals and studies of people with what's called "sleep apnea syndrome" (in which they stop breathing for up to two minutes while sleeping) document that cumulative brain damage does occur in such cases.
There are many documented additional dangers. These include, but are _not_ limited to: rupture of the windpipe, fracture of the larynx, damage to the blood vessels in the neck, dislodging a fatty plaque in a neck artery which then travels to the brain and causes a stroke, damage to the cervical spine, seizures, airway obstruction by the tongue, and aspiration of vomitus. Additionally, there are documented cases in which the recipient appeared to fully recover but was found dead several hours later.
The American Psychiatric Association estimates a death rate of one person per year per million of population -- thus about 250 deaths last year in the U.S. Law enforcement estimates go as much as four times higher. Most such deaths occur during solo play, however there are many documented cases of deaths that occurred during play with a partner. It should be noted that the presence of a partner does nothing to limit the primary danger, and does little or nothing to limit most of the secondary dangers.
Some people teach that choking can be safely done if pressure on the windpipe is avoided. Their belief is that pressing on the arteries leading to the brain while avoiding pressure on the windpipe can safely cause unconsciousness. The reality, unfortunately, is that pressing on the carotid arteries, _exactly_ as they recommend, presses on baroreceptors known as the carotid sinus bodies. These bodies then cause vasodilation in the brain, thus there is not enough blood to perfuse the brain and the recipient loses consciousness. However, that's not the whole story.
Unfortunately, a message is also sent to the main pacemaker of the heart, via the vagus nerve, to decrease the rate and force of the heartbeat. Most of the time, under strong vagal influence, the rate and force of the heartbeat decreases by one third. However, every now and then, the rate and force decreases to zero and the bottom "flatlines" into asystole, another, and more difficult to treat, form of cardiac arrest. There is no way to tell whether or not this will happen in any particular instance, or how quickly. There are many documented cases of as little as five seconds of choking causing a vagal-outflow-induced cardiac arrest.
For the reason cited above, many police departments have now either entirely banned the use of choke holds or have reclassified them as a form of deadly force. Indeed, a local CHP officer recently had a $250,000 judgment brought against him after a nonviolent suspect died while being choked by him.
Finally, as a CPR instructor myself, I want to caution that knowing CPR does little to make the risk of death from breath control play significantly smaller. While CPR can and should be done, understand that the probability of success is likely to be less than 10%.
I'm not going to state that breath control is something that nobody should ever do under any circumstances. I have no problem with informed, freely consenting people taking any degree of risk they wish. I am going to state that there is a great deal of ignorance regarding what actually happens to a body when it's suffocated or strangled, and that the actual degree of risk associated with these practices is far greater than most people believe.
I have noticed that, when people are educated regarding the severity and unpredictability of the risks, fewer and fewer choose to play in this area, and those who do continue tend to play less often. I also notice that, because of its severe and unpredictable risks, more and more SM party-givers are banning any form of breath control play at their events.
If you'd like to look into this matter further, here are some references to get you started:
People with questions or comments can contact me at http://www.greenerypress.com/ or write to me at
P.O. Box 1261, Berkeley, CA 94701.
Copyright issues footnote: I wrote this article with the hope that it would be widely read and distributed, and without any particular expectation of financial compensation in return for writing it. Therefore, I consent to the following uses of this essay:
If you'd like to look into this matter further, here are some references to get you started:
As always, the most important safety requirement is to not play alone. Autoerotic asphyxiation claims several hundred victims every year, most recently claiming actor David Carradine of televisons “Kung Fu” fame. (details) If you are practicing suspension or any other form of bondage or restriction play, be sure to have safety scissors handy as well as utilizing safety clips or releases in your restraints. An unconscious partner cannot help you get them down and death can quickly result even from the most benign restriction. I personally know of this happening and I have cut through hundreds of dollars in hemp to prevent issues. I also like to use a quick-release knot or preferably a under load quick release swivel. Be sure to use the swivel with the slide positioned for movement in the release direction, (down). Release knots in suspension create their own danger, so use judiciously.
What’s the thrill or attraction?
Breath control is the one activity I would unhesitatingly place in the otherwise controversial category of 'edge play'. And with good reason: a constant supply of fresh oxygen and the ability to dispose of carbon dioxide are both vital to the functioning of the body. Deprive the brain of oxygen for as little 4-6 minutes and brain cells begin to die and irreparable damage can be done to the heart as well. So those who play with breath are literally only minutes away from playing with death.
That of course, is part of the thrill for many people. You don't have to know consciously that what you're doing is dangerous, because all your body's reflexes are screaming it at you. Put the back of a crooked forefinger over your windpipe, in the middle of the angle where your neck joins your chin, and push up and back very gently. It takes hardly any pressure to feel very uncomfortable indeed. Do it to someone else and they will certainly try to move your hand away without even thinking about it.
There are all kinds of things people might get out of breath control. You may find there is a sensual pleasure in just the fact of having their breathing restricted, or enjoy the way it underlines the sense of enclosure when using a mask or hood. And it is the ultimate trust game, with the bottom literally putting their life in their top's hands.
Breath control may be used in moderation to introduce an element of vulnerability or danger into the scene. However some people pursue it to the point of near or actual unconsciousness, and enjoy the resulting psychological 'altered state'.
Some people assume, having heard that male victims of hanging ejaculate spontaneously in their final moments, that there is a direct connection between breath restriction and sexual response. The assumption is mistaken, however: modern judicial hanging causes death not by strangulation but by snapping the spinal cord, and it is the resulting trauma to the nerves that produces the ejaculation. Nonetheless, the command to a bottom that they will not get their oxygen supply back until they come is often remarkably efficacious in producing a rapid orgasm.
Types of breath play:
Hand over mouth – putting your hand over a partner’s mouth during sex is probably the most common form of breath play. The hand can form a tight seal with the option of blocking the nose to increase the intensity. This is a good place to start for beginners to breath play especially in the missionary position where the Top can watch the bottoms reactions. Be advised that wearing a glove can create a perfect seal and additional awareness should be executed.
Bagging – many plastic bags have holes in them to prevent children suffocating once you have found a bag without these holes you can begin bagging. Thinner bags can be used but it is possible for the sub or Dom/me to rip through them with hands or teeth. This may be preferable if you are trying it for the first time for a sense of security. A thick bag is difficult to rip through as the plastic thins and stretches before it tears. A pair of EMT scissors should be on standby especially if you have taped the bag. Choosing a clear bag is important as it allows you to watch the bottom’s reactions. If they insist on darkness a blindfold can be added under the bag.
When bagging you do not need to tape the bag. Some feel that taping the bag adds an inescapable element to the session making the experience more authentic however the Dominant can tighten the bag around the neck with the hands which still restricts the air but has the bonus of being able to remove the bag much faster without removing the tape. It is important to remember that if the sub panics and thrashes around it will be more difficult to remove a bag. Another consideration is that the bottom may suck the plastic into their mouth.
A common variation on bagging often used in interrogation scenes is to utilize a wet pillowcase over the head. This allows a buildup of CO2, causing panic, disorientation and must be carefully monitored. To exhaust built-up CO2, simply squeeze the pillow case tight or press the pillow case against the bottoms mouth. Fresh air flows into the pillowcase and play continues.
Another variation on bagging is the use of an Ambu-bag or bag valve mask, used to allow a rescuer to provide positive pressure ventilation to a patient who is not breathing or breathing inadequately. Safety concerns with the Ambu-bag are improper setup of the bag and pumping air under pressure into the stomach preventing ample ventilation of the lungs. Proper hold of the bag and lifting of the chin are required.
Re-breathing, also known as tantric breathe, is re-breathing the air from the breath you have just expelled. The oxygen in the air diminishes with each recycled breath. BDSM re-breathers can be purchased online they are masks with a bag that inflates and deflates as you breathe. The Top can squeeze air out of the bag or hold it to stop it refilling to control the play. Another form of this control uses a gasmask and tube to share or restrict breathing.
My favorite form of re-breathing is the breathless kiss, where the Top kisses the bottom, sealing the mouth and nose either with their mouth or a combination of a mouth and hand pinching the nose. The bottom inhales the exhaled breath, and their breath is re-breathed by the Top. The Top has the benefit of being able to inhale fresh air through their nose, and this also increases the oxygen in their exhaled breath. This leads to a sensual connection as well as a dreamy state for both. The inherent safety in this approach is that the connection is broken should the Top lose consciousness and each party resumes breathing naturally.
Dunking – holding someone underwater immediately stops them breathing in. The experience is very disorientating with the obvious risk of drowning. It is very difficult to guage a sub’s reactions and you certainly could not rely on bubbles in the water as an indicator of what is going on.
Suffocation – forcing someone’s face into a pillow is a form of suffocation and is often done during rough sex. Putting a pillow over someone’s face is a very different feeling, it is altogether more claustrophobic. Face-sitting can also be used to suffocate, the male equivalent being gagging on cock while the nose is pinched.
Holding your breath is the safest form of breath play as the body will breathe automatically should you pass out. Note: You must still guard against falling.