Disclaimer: Please only take medical advice from a qualified doctor. I am not a qualified doctor!
One of the things I find quite astonishing amongst ‘martial artists’ is the generally low level of understanding of the theory of choking people.
Choking is the process of stopping or reducing blood flow to the brain until the person loses consciousness (cerebral hypoxia). It usually requires a bit of squeezing force, but can be effortless and painless if applied with high levels of accuracy, and the person will just go to sleep. It’s one of the most powerful techniques in the self defence arsenal, since chokes generally work on everyone. It doesn’t’ matter if you’re big, small, strong, super strong or even Herculean, everybody goes to sleep. In Judo and BJJ done in a Gi, chokes are often done with a collar and are commonly taught.
Chokes have nothing to do with airflow. Again, I just did a quick google search and the amount of seemingly legitimate websites talking about ‘restricting airflow’ and ‘windpipe’ is insane. There is a lot of bad information out there. Chokes are about restricting the blood flow in the two jugular veins and cartoid arteries on either side of the windpipe. For a detailed analysis of what happens, check here. Being aware of exactly where you should be applying pressure when choking somebody will increase the effectiveness of your chokes massively.
Rendering somebody unconscious by stopping their airflow is also possible, and called smothering in BJJ. Smothering is usually a pretty nasty, violent thing to have done to you. Look up the Mothers Milk submission if you are curious! And a choke that involves crushing/compressing your windpipe to make it happen could also have dire consequences. Similarly, pressure on the chest can also stop you breathing and lead to unconsciousness. That’s particularly unpleasant, too.
But a good old fashioned blood choke is the safest method of rendering somebody who is aggressive instantly harmless. Quite often when they wake up the fight has gone out of them.
Chokes can be trained and practiced safely but become incredibly dangerous in the hands of the inexperienced, as we have tragically seen in many police killings of people already restrained, so only practice them under expert guidance. And if the person has gone unconscious – LET GO! Very often it is hard to tell, so check on them, get verbal feedback, don’t just keep squeezing!
In training, the idea is that before you go unconscious you can feel the effects (a build up of pressure in the head, the world going black around the edges, etc) and tap before it happens, so that the person lets go.
If you are training with somebody that didn’t tap in time and went unconscious then don’t do the commonly seen thing of raising their legs to ‘get the blood flow back to the brain’ – you’re much better off putting them in the recovery position and waiting for them to wake up, which should happen fairly quickly. If they don’t seem ok in anyway, especially if their speech is slurred, call an ambulance.
Nothing in martial arts is ever risk free and there is some evidence of poorly applied chokes, or people struggling too hard to get out of them, causing damage to blood vessels, leading to blood clots, leading to (in rare cases) risk of stroke.
My advice is always tap early and tap often, especially if you feel like you’re going to sleep.
Understanding choke theory is important for all martial artists. If you feel like you need a primer on choke theory, then I’d recommend this new video by Chris Paines. See below.