Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Death by Compressive Asphyxia

Can an adult die from having weight on the chest?

Absolutely. It’s called compressive asphyxia.

The lungs work like a bellows. The muscles between the ribs and the diaphragm operate together to expand the chest cavity and draw in air—inhalation. Relaxation of these muscles results in exhalation. Anything that restricts this movement leads to decreased oxygen coming into the lungs and then into the bloodstream. Carbon dioxide builds up, oxygen levels drop; the victim passes out and eventually dies from lack of oxygen.

Anything else that depresses the respiratory center in the brain makes it more likely asphyxia will occur—alcoholic intoxication, sedatives, extreme cold exposure, illness, and extremes of age.

Examples include:

Constrictor snake—like a python

An adult sharing a bed with a small child or infant rolls over on them

Crowds and panic, resulting in individuals crushed and unable to breathe

Pinned by a large weight, such as becoming trapped under a heavy box or piece of equipment

Restraint—the victim is facedown and the individual doing the restraining may press or kneel


A combination of compression and smothering (occluding the airway) was utilized by William Burke and William Hare in 1828 in a series of homicides. The two men got their victim intoxicated and sat on the chest of the victim (compression) while occluding the mouth and nose (smothering).

Questions? Comments?
elly has worked in the medical field for over twenty years, mainly at large medical centers. With experience in a variety of settings, chances are Kelly may have seen it.
Sometimes truth seems stranger than fiction in medicine, but accurate medicine in fiction is fabulous.

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  1. Grisly, but useful info, Kelly. Thanks so much.

  2. Sorry, for cancelling the above and re-posting. I forgot to click on the Notify box and I would love an answer :)

    Could a man do this by accident? My protagonist is a large man and the girl a slight person. Could he do this by kneeling on her in a play-fight-sexual game and shut off her nose and mouth by kissing her? Would it have to be open-mouth kissing which might accidentally cover her nostrils? Very grisly for sure but as Marsha says, very useful :)



    1. Hello, Diana.
      Yes, kneeling on her for a period of time--as few as fifteen minutes--could cause asphyxia. This has happened with restrained prisoners placed face down, as well as with psychiatric patients. It's easier to do if the victim is facedown. If your victim was facedown, she could smother on a pillow. To smother a victim, the nose and mouth must be occluded. I'm not sure you can get this with open-mouthed kissing. A game with a gag would work if her nose and mouth were both covered, or a hood.
      Hope this helps!
      Cheers, Kelly