Question and Answer: What Happens When Someone Is Hanged?

31 Mar

Q: I’ve got a couple of questions about hanging. I have a 140-pound man of slight build who has been hanged. His neck is not broken and thus he is strangling. His hands are bound. How long might he survive before death? Would he lose consciousness well before or shortly before death? If he is taken down before death, we would certainly see abrasion of the neck. What else would we see? If unconscious, would he revive quickly? Could his injuries be life-threatening? (I’m thinking of throat swelling here) I am looking at pre-modern society here. No ER or modern medicine.

A: In hangings, death results from asphyxia, which is the reduction of oxygen to the brain. Asphyxia in hangings results from the compression of the airways and the carotid arteries (the arteries on either side of the neck that carry blood to the brain) by a noose or other ligature that is pulled tight by the body weight. Thus, the victim must be completely or partially suspended.


Though the airway can be compressed and breathing can be interrupted, the real cause of loss of consciousness and death in most hangings is compression of the carotid arteries, which blocks blood flow to the brain. Except for judicial (legally directed) hangings, fractures of the cervical vertebrae (spinal bones of the neck) are uncommon. The reason is that these fractures require that the body drop a sufficient distance to break them. How far is this? The answer depends upon several factors. Individuals who are obese, have small neck musculature, or who have arthritis of the cervical spine may suffer neck fractures quite easily. Just the opposite is true for muscular, thick-necked persons. In judicial hangings, these factors are considered in gauging the distance of the drop. Too little drop and the condemned person is strangled to death, too far and he could be decapitated.

The neck markings seen after hanging depends mainly on the nature of the noose used. Soft nooses such as sheets may leave little of no markings. Bruises and abrasions are not common with softer devices. In fact, if the victim uses a soft noose and if the body is discovered fairly quickly and cut down, the ME may not be able to find any marks at all. A rope or cord may leave a very deep, distinct furrow in the victim’s neck. The longer the body hangs, the deeper the furrow. Abrasions and contusions are more common with these types of nooses. Occasionally the furrow and any associated bruising may reveal the braid pattern of a rope or the link configuration of a chain.

In hangings, the furrow and the bruising will follow a typical course. The pattern is that of an inverted V. The furrow tends to be diagonal across the neck with its high end where the knot is located. The knot is usually to one side. This means that if the knot is to the victim’s left side, the furrow will be lower on the neck and much deeper on the right side and will angle upward toward the left ear. Near the knot, the furrow may shallow and disappear. This pattern is due to the body hanging by the “bottom” of the nose.

Okay, enough about hangings, let’s get to your situation. Since the asphyxia is due to compression of the arteries and not the prevention of breathing, loss of consciousness occurs very quickly, usually in a minute or less and maybe as short as 20 seconds. The brain needs a continuous supply of blood and when this is interrupted, consciousness is lost quickly. Death may take from 1 to 5 or 6 minutes.

If your victim is found within 2 to 3 minutes, he would be unconscious but could wake up fairly quickly—a couple of minutes. Or not. Some people die in a minute while others can take many minutes. Go with a couple of minutes but not longer and you’ll be OK. He would probably have the typical V-shaped bruises on his neck and a furrow that would resolve over a half hour or so.

He could return completely to normal or be left with brain damage or even remain in a coma for hours, days, weeks, months, years, or forever. It all depends upon how long the brain was deprived of blood and luck. This varies from person to person.

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25 responses to “Question and Answer: What Happens When Someone Is Hanged?


    April 2, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Thank you for this article. I’m writing an historical western about the hangings of Ella Watson Averell and her husband James, and needed to know how the couple would suffer if they strangled instead of having their necks broken.

    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      April 3, 2011 at 7:32 am

      Glad the information helped. That’s the hope with each post.

  2. tara

    December 1, 2011 at 5:35 am

    what about discoloration?

    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      December 1, 2011 at 7:00 am

      In some hangings there is facial swelling and discoloration and in others there is none. I assume that’s what you are asking.

  3. Eddge

    February 22, 2012 at 4:21 am

    Your head stops working almost at once when the blood is cut off. There have even been people whose shirt collar was too tight, who blacked out turning their head!

    So the victims in your story would hardly have time to “suffer” at all. Maybe some flashes in the eyes, roaring in the ears, and lights-out.

    Their face might turn red or blue, or it might not. A number of factors govern this.

    Let me know about your book!

    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      February 22, 2012 at 12:09 pm

      What you are describing is called Hypersensitive Carotid Sinus and it does rarely happen. In hangings it can be quick or slow and painful depending on exactly how much the blood supply to the brain is reduced by the noose. It varies from case to case. The new Q&A book is titled More Forensics and Fiction and will be out on April 1st.
      More info here:

  4. Piyush

    July 24, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    Thank you for this article.

    piyush(from India)

  5. Laura

    December 28, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    I am writing a story about a suicide. I would prefer not posting specific details on the site, but for the purposes of accuracy, I would like to know more about what might have taken place, given the specific circumstances.

    I would be most appreciative, if when you had a moment, you would contact me.

    Thank you in advance for any assistance you are able to offer. Warmest Regards, L

    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      December 28, 2012 at 3:33 pm

      I don’t answer questions directly thru my blog anyway so go to my website where you will see a link on the main page that will explain how to submit a question.

  6. Crystal

    October 19, 2013 at 10:28 pm

    Question…after someone has been hung how long do you think it would take for facial swelling and petechiae hemorrhaging to occur?

    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      October 20, 2013 at 1:02 pm

      Usually very quickly–within a few minutes–but it varies from situation to situation.

  7. jordan lea fielding

    December 4, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    My partner hung himself with a belt hung over the top of a door and closes door and kicked chair over when I got there his neck was marked purple blotchy legs white face and his mouth was drooling I had only been 2 hours I would Like to no how long he was ther can u help me find this closure please

    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      December 4, 2013 at 3:20 pm

      I’m sorry for your loss but can’t comment on a real life situation such as this. Perhaps you should talk with your local ME/Coroner.

  8. Marcia

    December 11, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    If someone dies from hanging, does the blood pool in the feet and legs? And if they are cut down, and laid on their back, will the blood shift from their feet and legs and be noticeable only in their back and the back of their head? Thereby leaving their legs and feet without any evidence of the blood having pooled there previously?

    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      December 12, 2013 at 8:36 am

      Maybe yes, maybe no. It varies from case to case and has a gray deal to do with timing–how long the victim hung before being lowered. It’s complex but is explained in both FORENSICS FRO DUMMIES and HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS.

  9. catherine

    March 15, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    My son died by hanging. His face was pale, not purple, and there was no swelling in his face. We found hime within a half hour of when he hung himself. When we tried to revive him we heard a gurgling sound and vomit came up into his mouth. Why is this? His ligature markings were very high. I pray he passed out very quickly and did not suffer. Is the lack of swelling in the face an indication that blood flow to the brain was interrupted and that he would have passed out quickly?

    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      March 16, 2014 at 7:00 am

      I’m sorry to hear that but I don’t comment on real life situations since each one is different and anything I might say would be speculation and not necessarily true.

  10. mark

    May 10, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Thank you. I was curious about this because my best friend hanged himself three weeks ago.

  11. Alex

    June 23, 2014 at 5:48 am

    My ex partner hung himself just over a month ago. His neck was broken, but feet nearly touching the floor. Would this mean that he would have had to jump out of the tree to have broken his neck, he was a fit person aged 50.

    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      June 23, 2014 at 8:26 am

      I’m sorry for you loss. Neck fractures usually require some degree of drop. It varies greatly however.

  12. jitender singh

    October 5, 2014 at 11:07 am

    my friends younger brother aged 22 hanged himself 3 days ago.the door was locked from outside and it took nearly 15 to 20 mnts to break the door.when we entered in, we cut the cloth around his neck and put him down.his body was warm at that time and lips were purple or blue.and a dark mark around his marks on the other parts of body.i wants to know how long he was there hanging.does he hanged himself during door break,beause he was warm,not cold..

    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      October 5, 2014 at 12:16 pm

      I’m sorry for your loss but I cannot coment on such real life situations. I suggest you ask your local Coroner/ME these questions as he/she would be involved in the case and should know the details.

  13. LindaNewYork

    December 21, 2014 at 5:11 am

    My brother-in-law committed suicide by hanging himself from the deck. He was found with the rope in his mouth and the knot on top of his head. We have speculated that he was perhaps trying to get himself “out of it”.


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