Stab Wounds Don’t Always Kill

20 Feb

Writers often ask me questions about various traumas and how they will affect the victim. Maybe it’s a gunshot wound, or a knife wound, or a blow to the head, or even a push down the stairs. The problem with answering these questions is that almost anything can happen. A gunshot wound can be a minor flesh wound, or it can be immediately fatal — usually if it enters the heart, the brain, on the upper portion of the spinal cord. The gunshot wound could cause damage to internal organs such as the lungs or liver and the victim could bleed to death rapidly, or slowly, or not at all. The same can be said of knife wounds and blunt trauma. Ask any emergency room physician and they will tell you that these types of injuries come in 1000 flavors.

Some people who are shot or stabbed don’t even know it happened. The excitement and trauma of the situation often has a “numbing effect.” They might feel something but not what they would expect. No sharp, hot pain but rather something milder and more subtle. They might feel nothing at all. Later they will, but initially the shock of the situation tends to blunt their sensations and they are totally unaware that something significant has happened.

This is the reason when someone who has suffered some trauma from a fight or a gunshot or an automobile accident and is brought to the ER, the Doc will examine them from head to foot and front to back. Most people are aware of their injuries while others are not. Some injuries go unnoticed by the victim during this initial period. So it is up to the ER Doc to do a thorough exam and to make sure that there are no occult injuries that are being overlooked. There have been more than a few cases of someone being treated for one injury while another, maybe even something more life-threatening injury is not detected. For a while anyway. It’s something that should never happen, but it does.

That brings us to the case of Julia Popova. This young Russian woman was apparently the victim of a purse snatcher who plunged a 6-inch knife into her upper back. She was totally unaware until she got home and her parents saw the knife protruding from the base of her neck. They immediately took her to the hospital.

Why was she unaware of this injury and, more importantly, how did she survive it? As I stated above, the shock of the situation numbed her enough so that she didn’t feel the blade enter or remain in her back. Also, she was lucky. Very lucky. Had the blade struck a major blood vessel, she would have bled profusely. Had it struck her spinal column, she would have dropped into a paralyzed heap. Had it struck her lung, she would’ve become extremely short of breath and would’ve sprayed blood with every exhalation. In any of these circumstances she would have known she had been seriously injured and was in great danger of dying at the scene.

So when you’re crafting your stories and you want someone to suffer a gunshot wound or a knife wound be sure to take into account that almost anything can happen and that unlike the movies a single gunshot or stab wound does not drop someone to the ground or cause sudden death. It can, but it doesn’t very often.


71 responses to “Stab Wounds Don’t Always Kill

  1. leelofland

    February 20, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    Very true, Doug. I’ve been stabbed twice and once received a pretty nasty cut across the fingers and palm of my right hand while disarming a knife-wielding biker in a bar. The thing about my wounds and why I never really felt them during the action is that cops are taught in the academy that they will survive no matter how serious the injury or situation.

    That “you will survive” mentality is taught much like people train their pets, by repetition, over and over again. We train recruits that way (I taught officer survival for many years in the police academy) so they won’t give up. The survival rate increases greatly when the victim believes they’ll live. Of course, adrenaline is a great pain killer. That, and knowing that if you go down the bad guy could finish you off, steal your weapon, and kill someone else. Plus, it would be downright embarrassing for a cop to lose a battle.


    • yasmina

      July 20, 2013 at 4:35 pm

      hi it is so true, my son was on holiday and was stab and did not now he was stab only later discove he was bleeding but stll did not now he was stab it was just a small cut on his back ,this happend 2 years ago six months later he go sick took him to doctor he was exmain and dr said that she could her now breathing from left long she then send him for x/rays only to discove that he was stab and that he still had the knife in his long i was tromotice by this but he is doing well after the knife was remove . i can only thank God for my sons live of survivial


  2. Pat Browning

    February 20, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    How would a doctor treat that wound? Swab it out and sew it up? Would that treatment be any different from treating the same kind of wound in 1942?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      February 21, 2010 at 10:09 am

      Puncture wounds–those that are deep and narrow–aren’t usually sutured since this closes the outlet for blood seepage and tissue fluids to leave the wounded area. If these fluids are allowed to accumulate, they can serve as a good culture medium for bacteria and a wound infection is more likely. The wound is cleaned and irrigated with antibiotic solution and dressed, but left open for drainage. Sometimes a cloth or rubber drain is placed into the wound to help with this drainage. Pain meds and antibiotics are given and the wound is cleaned and irrigated every day. It will gradually heal from inside out.

      All this assumes that no major structures—muscles, vessels, nerves—weren’t damaged and these might require more aggressive surgery.

      The treatment in 1942 would be similar except that we now have better surgical techniques and better and more antibiotics. In 1942 penicillin was the only real antibiotic though sulfa was around. Either of these might have been used then but now we have many, many more and better options.


  3. Pat Brown

    February 21, 2010 at 12:20 am

    I’ve heard stories of people being stabbed multiple times, upwards of 40 in some cases, and surviving. I’ve heard cops talk about someone who was fatally shot who kept coming after them, the body was dead, the mind just didn’t know it yet. Those are stories that if I put them in a fiction story would never be believed.

    Great article, Doug. As always, insightful.


  4. Camille Kimball

    February 21, 2010 at 8:07 am

    That photo is so bizarre it does look like a movie scene.

    Your post resonates with me because I learned this while writing my first book, non-fiction. It has been much on my mind. Roughly fifty people or animals were shot or stabbed in the crime spree, but the number of fatalities was low in comparison. I learned it is very easy not to die from gunshot or knife wound, even if they do strike vital organs. Of those who did die, only one did so quickly.

    The movie version where you get popped once and immediately drop down is vastly more merciful than real life. The process of bleeding out frequently takes an agonizingly long time. If you survive that and help arrives, then the infections set in and the other complications. The statistics from the case I delved into would show the odds are with lifelong disabilities rather than most other outcomes.

    I appreciated this post. Thanks.

    Camille Kimall
    A Sudden Shot: the Phoenix Serial Shooter
    Penguin 2009


    • Erick

      September 27, 2013 at 7:47 pm

      My son was murdered June 14, 2013. He was stabbed once with a knife in the chest. The knife punctured the pericardium, diaphragm and liver. I held him in my arms and had to wait 11 minutes for 911 to arrive. It is my belief that the delay was a major contributing factor in his death. He looked into my eyes and asked for water. I applied pressure to his chest and watched him begin to take agonal breaths as his pulse faded. I wonder while writing your book if your research could help me answer this agonizing question Is there a chance that if he could have been brought to a level one trauma center is there a chance he may have lived or did the 11 minutes lying on the street lead to his death?


      • D.P. Lyle, MD

        September 28, 2013 at 7:31 am

        These things are always unpredictable as each situation is unique. Too many factors involved. SO the honest answer is maybe yes, maybe no. Any guess beyond that is just that–a guess.


      • Erick

        September 28, 2013 at 7:03 pm

        Thank you for taking the time to reply to my post. I truly appreciate your time. I have just purchased your book and look forward to reading it. God Bless and keep you.


  5. Kayla

    February 21, 2010 at 10:17 am

    Doug, great post! And oh my–what a shocking picture.

    This is all fantastic info that we writers need to keep in mind when crafting our stories. In my next book, I’m dealing with a victim of a stabbing who survives but is in hospital for several days. It’s so important to get the details right.

    -SPRING BREAK on sale March 2 from St. Martin’s Press!


  6. Carola Dunn

    February 21, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    In a recent case in Eugene–robbery of a drug dealer–the intruders hung the dealer up by his ankles. The instigator then slashed the dealer’s throat and made his two followers do likewise so that they were all equally incriminated. The dealer survived.

    The following day, the instigator coerced one of his followers into shooting the other for fear he’d give them awayl. The remaining two are now in prison.


  7. Cathy Murphy

    February 21, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    My ex-husband shot himself (in a suicide attempt), the bullet went through his heart, but he lived. The ER doctors and surgeons were amazed. They couldn’t explain it, and were convinced he was left on earth do do important work for God.



  8. Scooter P

    February 26, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Hi Doug, just picked up your book and found your blog by coincidence the same day… Wonderful writing, thanks! In response to this entry, a guest lecture in one of my college courses was by an ex-sheriff’s officer. He described to us a scene where a man attempting gunshot suicide failed when the bullet was somehow deflected around his skull inside his scalp to come out the other side. Amazing!! Thought I’d share… 🙂


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      February 26, 2010 at 3:39 pm

      Thanks. Yes this can happen and in fact I’ve seen it, too. The bullet burrows beneath the scalp and rides around the skull to the opposite side and remains there. Amazing to see.


  9. Amanda

    May 20, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Thanks for the info, it’s important for me as a writer to have a believable story even if the genre is fantasy. The severity or injuries and the recuperation time helps me create a realistic world for my readers. I discovered your blog by chance but it’s extremely useful so thank you.

    I thought I would share my own amazing story since others have. During university i was in the archery club. A new member was sorting out his equipment the night before a competition when he had some sort of accident and ended up shooting himself unintentionally in the eye. He was a bit touch and go for a while and took a long time to recover but rcover he did. The doctors said he has catastrophic brain damage but he can walk, read, write, talk and while his short-term memory was a little patchy he regained that as well. He said he couldn’t remember how it happened but he remembers pulling the arrow out of his eye before blacking out. Luckily his housemates found him shortly afrterwards. We’re all still waiting for any side-effects to show but it’s astonishing what the human body can cope with.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Will

    June 25, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    This photo has to be fake because the assailant would not have left the knife with his finger prints on it.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      June 26, 2011 at 9:40 am

      Actually it happens all the time. A cop’s best friend is often a stupid criminal–makes the investigation much easier. Plus in this case the blade just might have cut into and e=wedged in one of the vertebrae and might have been difficult to pull out. The attacked might have tried, given it a coupe of tugs, realized it wouldn’t budge, and took off. Odder things have happened. As for her surviving the wound that’s an easy one. Of course she could. As an intern I saw a guy walk into the ER in mid July wearing an overcoat. Seemed odd. He opened the coat and an ice pick, embedded to the hilt, protruded from his chest. It waggled with each heart beat. It was in his aortic arch. It had happened a couple of hours earlier when his wife stabbed him. He had to take the bus to the med center and changed buses twice to do it. The coat was because he was embarrassed for anyone to see the ice pick. HE went to surgery and did fine.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lee Lofland

        June 26, 2011 at 10:35 am

        Sure it happens. I’ve arrested dumb crooks who’ve left their wallets at crime scenes, used a credit card to pay for merchandise before robbing the clerk, looked directly into a surveillance camera before disabling it, and, yes, they’ve left knives, guns, and other weapons at the scenes of their crimes.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. dortmunder

    January 31, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    Hello Doug. Thank you very much for the information. I was the victim of an assault 18 years and I was also stabbed twice. I will like to know if you have any information on of what spiritual awakening is experienced by people that go thru these incidents. What religious experience involving a realization of a sacred dimension of reality goes thru their lives?


  12. jessieblackwood

    June 28, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    As a writer I would like to ask what the long term recovery would be for someone stabbed in the lung. As you say these injuries come in a 1000 different flavours, so too I imagine would be the complications and recovery and long term health issues. Would it, therefore, be realistic to say that someone who has suffered a stab wound to the chest would possibly have breathing problems and muscle restriction from the scar tissue around the wound. What could I legitimately give my story’s hero as a long term health issue from such a stabbing? Your blog is great btw, very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      June 28, 2012 at 8:29 pm

      You are right. This can come in 1000 flavors so the question is how disabled and for how long do you want your character out of action? Tell me more about what you need and I’ll give you an answer. But not here on the blog. Please send your questions thru my website where I have the instructions for asking story questions.


  13. jessieblackwood

    June 29, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    Okay, thanks for that.


  14. Allaina

    September 1, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    So if someone gets stabbed in the lung during a fight, will they feel it during or after? Or will the adrenaline numb their senses?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      September 2, 2012 at 6:46 am

      A rush of adrenaline can mask a lot of pain and fear. Not that the pain and fear aren’t there just that on a conscious level the sensations are muted by all the synapses firing in the brain. Stab wounds to the chest are very painful and if a lung is punctured and collapsed the victim will also be very short of breath. But yes, stab victims have been known to fight and run and do some pretty superhuman things.


    • Daniel Brown

      December 22, 2012 at 3:26 am

      With my stab wound to the lung, I did not feel the pain right away. I was completely unaware until I had overworked my lung trying to remove myself from what I thought was just a late night fist fight. Ive spent many nights wondering how I couldnt possiby have felt the pain.. Its been nearly 2 years since the incident , occasionaly the pain will wake me from a dead sleep ( possibly because I breathe more deeply than I do when im Bbvhactive). Every single day that passes I dont think of how it could’ve been much worse, but im still here.


  15. Kai

    October 13, 2012 at 9:16 am

    What if a person gets stabbed from the back, when he or she was not fighting? Like someone sneaked up on the victim and stabbed him/her while she was walking


  16. alisagoode

    October 19, 2012 at 11:48 am

    As I edit my novel, I am struggling with a scene following the treatment of a young man who has been stabbed. The entry point is through the chest, but the blade protrudes from his back. The attacker removes the blade from the victim (though I have been wondering if it should have gotten stuck simply because of its position). As it is currently written, the attacker’s weapon pierces (but does not crack) the sternum and avoids his organs. I am wondering if this is actually possible. If so, how would such an injury would be treated by medical professionals? If the blade is left in the victim, how would medical professionals go about removing it? Also, blood would NOT come out of his mouth if no organs were pierced, correct?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      October 19, 2012 at 5:17 pm

      I don’t answer story questions thru this blog but I do thru my website: Go there and you will see a link on the main page that will take you to the instructions for submitting questions.


  17. Daniel Brown

    December 22, 2012 at 2:30 am

    In April of 2011 I was involved in a bar fight. I was stabbed once at the base of the neck just above my left collarbone with a 4 inch blade. 48 hrs later I awoke with news my lung had been punctured and collapsed. My last memory before going completely unconscience was fleeing the area. Suddenly I felt an intense burning in my chest like a fire had been set inside of me.
    was waking up with with a chest tube through my ribs draining the blood that made its way to my lungs.


  18. Martin

    March 4, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    I had very similar wound as Daniel. I was 17 y.o. and during a robbery I was hit with kitchen knife (6-7 inch) in the back, to the VII rib. Knife went through the rib (cut it off), and through the lung two times (one knife hit made two wounds in the lung: one wound where the knife entered the lung and the tip of the knife reached the bottom side of the lung). Also the knife damaged v.azygos, which as I know is an important vein. Lost about 2,5-3 litres of blood. As I was in a shock, I didn’t feel any pain, but I understood that I was stabbed, but as I wasn’t feeling pain and couldn’t see the wound in the back, I didn’t realise how serious the wound was. I was hoping that I will sit for a while to catch my breath and walk home… BLACK OUT. Woke up in a hospital. :)) Also had the same tubes to the lung to drain the blood. one week in intensive care and released from hospital in two weeks with mild pneumonia

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nhea

      April 16, 2014 at 10:41 pm

      Hi martin, did you have any complications?


  19. Brad

    April 14, 2013 at 6:30 am

    Hi..I was attact in 2006 by 6 guys and was stabbed 18 times and survived..4 stabs to my head, 2 wounds in the side of my face, 4 on the right side of my tourso 3 on my left, 2 in my right hip and 1 on the left, 1 in the back of my neck and 1 in my left shoulder..I still suffer today but im alive..that’s all that matters!


    • Martin

      January 22, 2017 at 2:03 pm

      Thank God for that Martin! God has big plans for you.


  20. Mark Soultz

    May 21, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    I was stabed 26 time nad had total 30 knife wounds I had to beg for my life I was all ready having panic attacks now my life is hell


  21. karla

    October 3, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    my son in law and daughter were mugged on aug 9 by members of a gang involved in an initiation of some sort…they hit him with a bottle on the forehead where he had alot of bleeding and also they stabbed him in the back right side and his lung collapsed he didnt evem know he was stabbed now 2 months later he still has fluid in the lung and coughs relentlessly (he never smoked) tomorrow they are doing arthroscopic surgury to the lung to try and remove the fluid…if this doesnt work what then? he supports his family and of course doesnt get paid if he doesnt work


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      October 3, 2013 at 9:54 pm

      For medico-legal reasons I never comment on real life situations such as this. You should discuss this with his treating physicians.


  22. John

    February 10, 2014 at 8:38 am

    couple days ago I fell on a steak knife which lodged into my lung just a bit. bladder pump, iv, leg air pumps for blood clots and a few pain pills here and there. Good to know ill be alright typing this in the hosptial room. I probably shouldnt have pulled it out like a crazy man. oh well! good post.


  23. Fran Ronan

    February 13, 2015 at 9:55 am

    If you stab someone , in the abdomen will blood always squirt out, and possibly onto the attacker,


  24. Clare Milling

    February 13, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    okay I have a question for you. I have a character, an anatomist from the 18th C. who in a revenge killing performs a precise, neat cut to murder his tutor. So how could he do that, given his knowledge of the body, could he stab the heart with a surgical instrument?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      February 14, 2015 at 7:58 am

      Clare—I don’t answer such questions her on my blog but rather only through my website. I require certain information before answering and this is outlines on the site. SO add the needed info and send along your questions via my website.


  25. saharafoley

    September 19, 2015 at 8:17 am

    Very interesting post. Ive seen this happen myself. Its amazing how the mind and body works.


  26. mark Sullivan

    October 19, 2015 at 1:40 am

    On the subject of stab wounds . Last winter me and my boyfriend was in a horrible car crash. We were speeding ,and at the time I had my knife collection in the floorboard by my feet. When the crash happened I remember one of them entering my skull , but from there it gets fuzzy. I remember a vast nothingness surrounding me .it felt as if I was numb of emotions and felt no pain. I remember a voice ask me” what do you want out of life”. I thought about it and replied “it’s not what I want out of life , the question is what is life.” After that I heard booming laughter, as if it resonated from everything and nothing at the same time. “Then what is life?” The voice had asked me. “Living for more than yourself, to find yourself in meaning of all life” after that I remember waking up. Excruciating pain erupted from my head, my knees, my ribs, and my left arm -it still gives me problems to this day- . It took me a second to figure out my head was split open , and in that time I was able to calm my mate down. He was frantic telling me he thought he killed me cus I wasn’t moving or breathing for a while…. anyway I don’t know what happen . Honestly I don’t know what to think. All I want is closure on it,and I feel if someone can explain it to me I would feel a lot better. Anyway thank you for your time ,and get back with me if you can help me find anything . I myself will keep researching as well.


  27. Deandra Alleyan

    June 24, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    Dr Lyle: I think this is a general enough question to go here rather than under the “story help” site. Given that various knife injuries can create different results based on the victim (and the attacker’s skill), is there one or more knife injuries that are most likely to incapacitate someone, even if death comes more slowly? For instance, if someone is holding another person with a knife to their throat, and a rescuer comes from behind with a knife, is there a “best choice” way to disable the bad guy without harming the hostage?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      June 24, 2016 at 3:10 pm

      Deandra–I only answer such questions thru my website as there are certain rules and understandings that are required. Visit my site and submit your story questions that way.


  28. KPJ

    June 27, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    My 34-year-old son was stabbed once in the abdomen and died hours later in the hospital. He had just moved out-of-state months before so we never even heard about his death until 5 hours after his death.To this day, I’ve wondered how a single stab wound to the abdomen could have caused his death when he was in a hospital. 😦 We contacted ER staff, never really got a viable answer.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      June 27, 2016 at 12:20 pm

      Major blood vessels live in there and if damaged can lead to death very quickly.


  29. KPJ

    June 28, 2016 at 4:38 am

    From all that I’ve read, it’s very uncommon for a single wound to the abdomen to cause death though–particularly if victim managed to get medical attention. My son was in ER for hours prior to his passing. It’s so difficult for us to grapple with the fact that he *was* in hospital (vs. left at scene to bleed-out), but died anyway.


  30. kaleighmorgan

    June 29, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    Hello! I’m incredibly excited to see this thread is still live. I’m working on a character in a story who was stabbed through the shoulder–I’m wondering if you could provide any insight as to if there is an exact point that would inflict the LEAST amount of damage? In this case, the wound is strategically placed to cause the least amount of harm/shortest heal time? Thanks!


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      June 29, 2016 at 3:01 pm

      I don’t answer story questions here but rather only thru my website as there are certain understandings and information needed prior to my addressing them. Visit my site and you will find instructions on how to submit a story question.


  31. Adena Ajike

    July 7, 2016 at 7:53 am

    is there a possibility for someone to be stabbed around the abdomen area but not in the peritoneum cavity (where the intestine-like organs are)? Is that easy to survive? Also, if someone was stabbed in that cavity, how much medical attention would they need? It’s for writing haha….


  32. sharonkconnell

    August 24, 2016 at 1:07 pm

    I have a question regarding my heroine being stabbed by the villain. I have her going into shock and being rushed to the hospital by the hero almost immediately. She is unconscious. The question is, what would be the time frame for her to be unconscious. Could she stay in an unconscious state in shock for a few hours before coming around. I also have her being admitted to the hospital because she was stabbed in the side and is being watched for sepsis. Is that feasible?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      August 25, 2016 at 6:22 am

      I only answer such questions through my website and I require certain information and understandings beforehand. Please supply the needed info and resubmit your questions thru that site.


      • sharonkconnell

        August 25, 2016 at 7:21 am

        Dr. Lyle, I tried clicking on every place I could in the link you gave me to no avail. I would gladly follow your rules to get the answer to this question, if your site worked. All I’m looking for is how long would the heroine stay in the hospital. The link did not work.


      • D.P. Lyle, MD

        August 25, 2016 at 7:26 am

        Go to my site here:

        Then click on Story Question? on the right side. That should work.


      • sharonkconnell

        August 25, 2016 at 8:10 am

        Sorry, I went to the link above. It’s still not connecting me to where I can give you my info and then ask my question. I have clicked on both “Go here” places and it doesn’t do anything. I even clicked on the email: Click Here, and nothing.


      • D.P. Lyle, MD

        August 25, 2016 at 8:22 am

        Interesting. Might be your browser settings or e mail settings. Works for me. Send your info and questions to this e mail:


  33. EnderStriker13

    October 31, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    I know this is kind of off topic, but I’m writing about one of my characters getting stabbed. He’s been stabbed with something sharp. The wound reaches from the bottom of his ribs down to an inch above the hip. The wound is four to six inches deep, a friend has found him to take him to medical help, and the help is about ten minutes away. If he is sixteen, has significant muscular growth, is in good health, and has been bleeding for about fifteen minutes, how long would he live?


  34. potterpanda11

    March 9, 2017 at 4:19 pm

    Can a person get stabbed directly in the middle of their chest or would their sternum block it?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      March 9, 2017 at 6:08 pm

      Yea and yes. The blade could strike the sternum and never enter the chest or it could just miss or slip off the edge and penetrate. I’ve seen both.


  35. Snow

    April 8, 2019 at 9:31 am

    Does removing the knife after being stabbed affect the victim’s chance of surviving?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      April 8, 2019 at 10:07 am

      Depends on the location and the nature of the wound. Regardless, it should only be done by a medical rofessional as it can actually increase the blood loss and that must then be handled properly.


  36. sharonkconnell

    April 8, 2019 at 11:04 am

    Reblogged this on Sharon K. Connell.


  37. Shinigami

    August 24, 2019 at 9:31 pm

    I have two questions:

    1. How painful would being stabbed in the knee be compared to being stabbed elsewhere?

    2. If stabbed in the knee, would your leg be unable to support you or could you still walk?



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