Suffocation Roulette And Childhood Choking Games

A brief look at self-asphyxial risk-taking behavior in adolescence

Posted Mar 23, 2016

In a previous article I examined the ‘choking game’ (also known by dozens of names including the ‘fainting game’ and ‘suffocation roulette’). This was a game that I played a couple of times as an adolescent (although we called it ‘Headrush’). This was a game where I would have my breathing temporarily stopped by someone holding onto my chest after a deep expiration and hyperventilation (so that I could not breathe). It induced feelings of light-headedness and dizziness followed by temporary unconsciousness (usually lasting 10 to 15 seconds).

This activity that I engaged in as a teenager is an example of self-asphyxial risk-taking behavior (SARTB). It also appears that what I did when I was an adolescent was a form of ‘self-induced hypocapnia’ (i.e., a state of reduced carbon dioxide in the blood). It has also been reported that these ‘games’ can be played alone and typically involve self-strangulation, or sometimes with others, and where like my own experiences, the cutting off of the oxygen supply was carried out by somebody else.

Reports of SARTB date back to the early 1950s in the medical literature (for instance, Dr. P. Howard and his colleagues reported a case in a 1951 issue of the British Medical Journal). SARTB has been defined by R.L. Toblin and colleagues in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Safety Research as self-strangulation or strangulation by another person with the hands or a noose to achieve a brief euphoric state caused by cerebral hypoxia. As with autoerotic asphyxiation (i.e., suffocation as a way of enhancing sexual arousal), the aim of SARTB is to intentionally cut off the oxygen supply to the brain to experience a feeling of euphoria (the only difference being that in children’s games, it is not done for a sexual reason).

How prevalent the activity is debatable as most of the academically published studies are case reports (usually when a problem – and in some cases, death – has occurred). However, a comprehensive systematic review of SARTB was recently published by Busse et al (2015) in the Archives of Disease in Childhood. They attempted to assess the prevalence of engagement in SARTB and associated morbidity and mortality in children and adolescents (and up to early adulthood). Busse and colleagues examined every survey and case study that had been published on SARTB, and more specifically examining the behavior among those aged 
0–20 years (excluding any study where the motive was autoerotic, suicidal or self-harm). They reported that 36 studies had examined child and adolescent SARTB in 10 different countries (North America and France being the most common, but also reports in the UK).

Risk factors for SARTB were hard to assess because most of the studies examining such risks did not control for other confounding variables. However, five of the studies reported an association between SARTB and a number of other risky behaviors including substance misuse, risky sexual behaviors, poor mental health, poor dietary behaviors, and engagement in risky sports. The review also reported that there did not seem to be any association between SARTB and engagement in physical activity, and experiencing accidents, and/or hospital admissions. It was also noted that a number of other behaviors increased the likelihood of engaging in SARTB including experiences of violence, being more impulsive, having a thrill-seeking personality, and having lower school achievement. However, only six of the 36 studies they reviewed reported the potential for SARTB to be associated with other risky behaviors. No consistent findings were found between SARTB and gender, age and other demographic factors (such as socio-economic status).

Examining the studies as a whole, Busse and colleagues reported that awareness of SARTB ranged from 36% to 91%, and that the median lifetime prevalence of engagement in SARTB was 7.4% (however, these were studies that used convenience sampling, therefore none of the studies were necessarily representative). In the SARTB literature, a total of 99 fatal cases were reported (and of the 24 detailed case reports, most of the deaths occurred when individuals were engaged in SARTB alone and used some type of ligature).

In a different analysis in the Journal of Safety Research, Dr. R.L. Toblin and colleagues used US news media reports to estimate the incidence of deaths from SARTB. Their report identified 82 probable SARTB deaths among youths aged 6-19 years during 1995 and 2007. Of these 82 cases, 71 (86.6%) were male, and the mean age of death was just over 13 years of age. The study also noted that deaths were recorded in 31 US states and were not clustered by location, season or day of week. Busse and colleagues assert the importance of education and prevention and more specifically note:

“As it has been suggested that knowledge and identification of symptoms and signs of engagement in [SARTB] could have possibly enabled early identification and possible prevention of fatal cases, we believe that clinicians, paediatricians, health professionals and teachers should receive education on the symptoms and signs of [SARTB]. The need to educate health professionals has been highlighted as awareness of [SARTB] will enable these individuals to identify symptoms and signs and to act as educators to young people and their parents…We further recommend that more research is carried out together with young people to develop appropriate education material. In line with recommendations from others, we further recommend removing existing videos about [SARTB] from the internet and ensuring that preventative website rather than promotional websites appear first on internet searches”.

This brief examination of the literature suggests that a significant minority of adolescents have engaged in SARTB and that in extreme cases it may lead to death. Despite being known about for over 60 years, the data concerning SARTB are still limited and relatively little is known about the associated risk factors. However, SARTB certainly appears to be an activity that parents and teachers should be made more aware of even if the prevalence of such activity among children and adolescents is low.

References and further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Busse, H., Harrop, T., Gunnell, D. & Kipping, R. (2015). Prevalence and associated harm of engagement in self-asphyxial behaviours (‘choking game’)
in young people: A systematic review. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 100, 1106-1114.

Drake, J.A., Price, J.H., Kolm-Valdivia, N. & Wielinski, M. (2010). Association of adolescent choking game activity with selected risk behaviors. Academic Pediatrics, 10, 410-416.

Egge, M.K., Berkowitz, C.D., Toms, C. & Sathyavagiswaran, L. (2010). The choking game: A cause of unintentional strangulation. Pediatric Emergency Care, 26, 206-208.

Howard, P., Leathart, G. L., Dornhorst, A.C., & Sharpey-Schafer, E.P. (1951). The mess trick and the fainting lark. British Medical Journal, 2, 382-384.

MacNab, A.J., Deevska, M., Gagnon, F., Cannon, W.G. & Andrew, T (2009). Asphyxial games or “the choking game”: A potentially fatal risk behavior. Injury Prevention, 14, 45-49.

Shlamovitz, G.Z., Assia, A., Ben-Sira, L. & Rachmel, A. (2003). “Suffocation roulette”: A case of recurrent syncope in an adolescent boy. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 41, 223-226.

Toblin, R.L., Paulozzi, L.J., Gilchrist, J. & Russell, P.J. (2008). Unintentional strangulation deaths from the "choking game" among youths aged 6-19 years -United States, 1995-2007. Journal of Safety Research, 39, 445-448.

Urkin, J. & Merrick, J. (2006). The choking game or suffocation roulette in adolescence (editorial). International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 18, 207-208.