Erotic asphyxia and the limits of the brain

A guy who enjoyed whacking off while trying to strangle himself has provided important evidence that an outward sign considered to indicate severe irreversible brain damage can be present without any lasting effects.

It was long thought that a body response called decerebrate rigidity – where the body becomes stiff with the toes pointing and the wrists bending forward – was a sign of irreversible damage to the midbrain.

This sign is widely used in medical assessments to infer severe brain damage and has been observed in videos of people being executed by hanging.

A new study in The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology provides striking evidence that it is possible to recover from decerebrate rigidity owing to self-taped videos of a man who would strangle himself with a pair of pyjama pants suspended from the shower while masturbating.

The practice is known as autoerotic asphyxia and is based on the idea that restricted oxygen can enhance sexual pleasure – although is not recommended, not least because the medical literature is awash with cases of people who have died while attempting it.

Indeed, the gentleman described in the study did eventually die while hanging himself and when the forensic team investigated his house they found videos where he had filmed himself undertaking the risky sexual practice.

The three videos show him hanging himself while masturbating to the point where he lost consciousness and had the equivalent of an epileptic tonic-clonic seizure as he crashed to the ground. Each time, he regains consciousness and has no noticeable lasting effects.

In one of the videos, 20 seconds of decerebrate rigidity are clearly present. This was previously thought to be a sign of severe permanent brain damage – and yet he comes round, picks himself up and seems unaffected.

The study makes the interesting point that we still know very little about the effects of oxygen starvation on the brain.

For example, the widely quoted figure about brain cells dying after three to five minutes without oxygen is based entirely on animal studies and we don’t actually know the limit for humans.

As the authors note “There is no study to document this threshold of 3 to 5 minutes of ischemia [oxygen deprivation] to cause irreversible brain damage in human beings. Nevertheless, data obtained from animal studies were applied to human beings and the source of the threshold was later forgotten and assumed to be reliable.”

Link to PubMed entry for study.

6 thoughts on “Erotic asphyxia and the limits of the brain”

  1. Fascinating as usual.

    This topic hits close to home, as my young father suffered a heart attack and the paramedics didn’t arrive for 20 minutes, but then revived him. I wish they hadn’t. He survived for another week in a state that — well, if he had been a dog, someone would have shot him to be kind. Meanwhile, the ER doc refused to give my dad morphine because “he doesn’t have enough brain tissue to feel pain.” There are no words.

  2. Erotic autoasphyxiation, phantom penises…this site has officially obtained Most Awesome Blog status in my book and I’m adding it to my blogroll, STAT!

    Fascinating article, particularly for a hospitalist such as myself who unfortunately sees a lot of decerebrate rigidity in advanced cases of what we presume are brain death. These cases, however, are usually in the ICU and the patients have persistence of the decerebrate posturing, along with other indications of severe brain injury (EEG findings, etc). Still, this gives one food for thought…

  3. Women know that when your toes curl from orgasm, whether by yourself or with a partner… that’s a good one.
    I don’t understand the whole wrapping stuff around your neck thing. Why don’t people just hold their breath?
    A potential lover once asked me, do you know the most important thing to remember when you’re choking your lover during sex? I said, no, what? He said, to let go….

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