One of the most dangerous and potentially deadly unarmed attacks a person can face is a choke. In addition to the pain and serious physical damage that a choke can produce, the fear and panic caused by the inability to breathe can be overwhelming.

From a physical standpoint, chokes are dangerous for a number of reasons. They directly target the trachea and larynx to restrict or cut off the body’s supply of air to the lungs. Without a supply of fresh air, the body cannot oxygenate the blood and ultimately the brain is deprived of the oxygen necessary to keep it alive. And, while manual choking with the hands would require several minutes of sustained effort to cause life-threatening brain damage via oxygen deprivation, a violent manual choke can produce a lethal injury in just a matter of seconds.

The neck contains many structures that are critical to life-supporting functions. The vagus nerve controls contraction of the heart and constriction of the lungs during respiration. The phrenic nerve controls the diaphragm and is critical to the breathing process. The laryngeal nerves control the functions of the vocal chords and epiglottis (the flap that prevents food and foreign objects from entering the larynx). And the thyroid and cricoid cartilages provide structure to the larynx to keep the airway open. A violent choke can quickly cause trauma to one or more of these structures, causing swelling and closure of the airway as well as nerve trauma that could affect breathing. Such trauma could easily lead to loss of consciousness and slow death by suffocation minutes after the initial attack.

Although it is commonly believed that pressure on the carotid arteries can directly deprive the brain of oxygenated blood and cause unconsciousness, in reality, reflex strangulation (a “blood choke”) results from over-stimulating the baroreceptors—sensors in the neck that monitor carotid blood pressure—and forcing the body to compensate by draining blood from the head. Despite the misconceptions about the mechanics of blood chokes, a violent choke attack can still produce unconsciousness very rapidly, leaving the victim helpless against subsequent attacks.

Lethal-Force Threshold

A choke is obviously an extremely dangerous attack, especially when that attack is perpetrated by a large, strong male against a physically weaker female. Although relative size and strength will always be factors in determining what is reasonable in a self-defense situation, grabbing a person by the throat is a very clear indication of an attacker’s intent to use lethal force. At that point, you are very justifiably in fear of death or grievous bodily injury—the legal trigger that justifies the use of lethal force on your part.
As logical as this may seem, many self-defense systems teach choke defenses that are extremely impractical, particularly for smaller-framed women. In many cases, these defenses do not consider the violent reality of a committed choke, nor do they logically address the attacker’s vulnerabilities based on available targets. Let’s be smarter than that and take a logical look at defending against this frightening attack.

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