If you can talk, you can breathe – NOT NECESSARILY!

December 8th, 2014


If you think someone is not respiratory distress just because they can talk, you are wrong.

Recent events in New York have put the spotlight on three myths that I shall attempt to dispel here:

Myth 1: Strangleholds are a safe way of subduing someone
Strangleholds (more commonly, but less accurately, called chokeholds) are techniques used in martial arts and by security forces to subdue an opponent. The aim is to restrict bloodflow to the brain, thus causing hypoxia which leads to unconsciousness. Since a properly applied stranglehold does not restrict the airway (which a chokehold does), if the pressure is released soon enough, the victim will regain consciousness. If not, the victim will suffer brain damage or death from hypoxia.

Myth 2: Police and security forces are experts in the techniques of subduing
I have taught martial arts to individual police officers and I have attended seminars on hand-to-hand combat aimed specifically at security forces and designed by experienced police officers who are also expert practitioners of grappling arts.

In my experience, the average police officer is no more competent in applying martial arts techniques than the average martial arts dilettante. How could they be if they only attend seminars every few months?

In my opinion, giving a police or security officer occasional training in techniques which, if applied incorrectly, can lead to brain damage or death, is deluded at best. This would be akin to sending someone on bi-annual tennis seminars and then expecting them to perform convincingly at Wimbledon.

Myth 3: If you can talk, you can breathe
Unfortunately, there are police officers, security officers and even martial artists who subscribe to this myth. The fact that someone is breathing does not mean they are not going into respiratory failure, which is when not enough oxygen is passing from your lungs to your bloodstream. What’s more, the fact that someone is able to exhale (which a chest compression or injury would encourage), does not mean they are able to inhale again easily. You only need to be able to exhale to be able to say: “I can’t breathe.”

When someone is in distress, they are unlikely to be able to give a medically accurate description of what is distressing them, even if they had the knowledge to do so. Which of the following is someone more likely to say when going into respiratory failure? “I appear to be experiencing respiratory difficulty!” or “I can’t breathe!”

Respiratory distress can, furthermore, be caused by panic, rather than physical trauma, but the result (inadequate levels of oxygen in the blood) is the same, as anyone who has ever passed out from a panic attack can tell you.

Because a properly applied stranglehold does not restrict the airway, the victim is able to breathe and thus able to talk. Respiratory distress does not occur (unless triggered by panic), nor does respiratory failure, since the victim continues to breathe. In this case, the fact that the victim is talking does indeed mean that they are breathing; however, breathing during a strangehold does not mean the victim is not going to suffer injury or death. Being able to breathe does not mean you are not at imminent risk of respiratory failure or hypoxia.

Strangleholds are sophisticated techniques which require dedicated training and practice over extended periods of time to be able to apply safely. I would not be surprised to find that most people (including security forces) who learn such techniques practise them only on compliant and cooperative training partners. I would exclude from that remark serious practitioners of grappling martial arts, such as Jiu Jitsu, who regularly practise against uncooperative opponents. Anything other than expertise in subduing an uncooperative opponent can result in misapplying the technique, resulting in choking or compressing the chest of the opponent (either by the subduer ending up on top of the opponent, or an overweight opponent ending up lying on their side), who then says: “I CAN’T BREATHE!”

Anyone who claims not to be able to breathe should be given immediate assistance and first-aid, rather than be further subdued!


Comment on article "No indictment in NYPD in-custody death"

A comment, presumably made by a police officer, on the news that there would be no indictment in the case of the death of Eric Garner. Click image for source.

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