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.


46 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?


  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.


    • Kariena

      August 12, 2015 at 5:01 am

      My Husband hung himself in our closet.. Where we would hang our clothes. He closed the closet door since closet was pretty spacious he had moved the clothes out of the way. He asked me to step outside to pick up something that someone was gonna leave for him. When I got back it must of been a min no more, he had already done it. After panicking out and asking for help, which no1 did. I finally called the ambulance cut the belt, and immediately began CPR the paramedic’s arrived fairy fast… & they started working on him as the police interrogated me I didn’t know what his status was. So anxious to know if I was able to save him or not. The paramedics took him in the ambulance. I wasn’t allowed to go cus I had my 2kids. (then my son was 3.. About 2weeks from turning 4….. & my daughter was 5months about 5days from turning 6months) I eventually was able to manage to go to his side.. Being connected to all kinds of machines. I broke down. I was shocked, confused, broken, alone, sad that he was connected to all of those machines. What did this mean?? I dint know if i manage to help him out or did I fail.. Later on I found out he did die, the paramedics & E.R Dr.s were able to bring him back to life. Medicine, machines and who knows what else. But he’s alive is all I thought.. So its been 8months 4days.. He is in a vegetative coma, he is not fully conscious of himself or his surroundings. Our kids & I visit him often, almost daily.. My son always asks for his daddy, and reminds himself about the memories he has with his daddy. I just keep asking myself why? And what could I have done differently to avoid him from doing it. If you are thinking of doing it please don’t. Please don’t. U may be hurting and might think its the only way out but its not. Someone loves you and would hate to see u suffer in any way or form. Please look for help. Cus my son n myself miss him n feel helpless cus there’s nothing we can do now to change anything. 😩😩😩😩😢😢😢😢😢


  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”.


  14. Patricia Lewey

    July 17, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    My son hung himself years ago. He was 27 yrs old; very bright with IQ 147 at 12 yrs old.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      July 17, 2015 at 4:51 pm

      Patricia, I’m so sorry for your loss. These things are very hard to understand but they seem to happen all to often. And often, because people don’t understand the mechanism of what actually happens, that they can’t always change their minds because they lose consciousness must faster than most folks realize, a gesture, an experiment, or even simple curiosity can end in tragedy.


  15. Patricia Lewey

    July 17, 2015 at 5:36 pm

    why would my brilliant son choose death even knowing I and his brother loved him? Was it because he hated himself? He blew up in anger many times to put holes in walls, and all my attempts to get help for him were ignored by so-called “experts” who did nothing except a paycheck for them. Kevin got lumber to saw double square boards he nailed to the ceiling the room end of carport; then jumped from the dryer to hang himself. This is unacceptable to me, his mother.all the excuses of MUSC, inadequate “doctors” social workers, pastors, etc. I was frantic trying to save his life, even not knowing his desperate state of mind. If you want more, I will tell you.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      July 17, 2015 at 5:50 pm

      I’m afraid I can’t comment on that as the answers are not really knowable. Only those who choose this route know the real reasons.


  16. Patricia Lewey

    July 17, 2015 at 7:31 pm

    My wonderful, intelligent, beautiful son is dead. He was creative, honest, not unkind, yet seemingly detatached at times to appear indifferent others feelings as he was concerned his life. He told me “three times “I don’t love you” The words hurt, but it was honest. Kevin never lied. His Boss told me “Kevin is the most honest person I’ve known. I could leave him to work on million dollar homes East Bay Street in Charleston, SC to never worry anything stolen.” Over 200 people came to the funeral services for Kevin, including a radio station. Kevin was quiet, modest, sincere. He left notes for us; one to his brother ..he said was a “rare bird” He left notes in general to others that included me, his mother. No mention his father, Charles Lee Lewey. Kevin’s suicide traumatized the young adults in Charleston because they saw him as strong due to his big presence, yet he was fragile inside like crystal to be broken.

    . I have a cat that sits with me when I cry for Kevin. This cat won’t leave my side until I’m in bed to sleep,then curls up beside me to purr. Friends tell me “Oh, that’s Kevin.” with a smile. Maybe so, maybe not, it works to give me peace enough to sleep a night …but still the dreams come to see Kevin alive with many people around him all talking, and he is teaching. It’s just dreams.

    Just to note; American Red Cross sent me a letter that 36 surgeries were done using Kevin’s body and a letter from Lions Eye bank that a part of his eye helped a woman to see. So even as he died, he gave.


  17. BT.Tuck

    August 15, 2015 at 8:08 am

    I am writing a story in which a character commits suicide by hanging. My question is what happens if the body is not immediately removed? Who cuts the body down? Fire fighters? Coroners? what is the proper procedure?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      August 15, 2015 at 8:10 am

      At any crime scene where there is loss of life, the crime scene belongs to the police but the corpse belongs to the coroner. The police should not disturb the body and the coroner/ME or his tech would cut down and remove the body.


  18. Rik Verhelle

    August 16, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    This occured lots of years ago. An army fellow was found dead in his private room. He had died by “hanging” with the rope fastened around a central heating element, and he was nearly kneeling. I wonder how this can happen … can a person realy hang himsilf in this position … this was not realy done by hanging :-(


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      August 17, 2015 at 7:16 am

      Hanging does not require that the body be fully suspended, only that the person’s weight causes a noose to tighten and cut off blood flow to the brain.


      • Rik Verhelle

        August 17, 2015 at 9:06 am

        Difficult to understand how a person how a person can die in a position allowing him to change his mind ?


      • D.P. Lyle, MD

        August 17, 2015 at 9:20 am

        That’s the danger of some of the games folks play–and autoerotic asphyxia situations. Most think that loss of consciousness (LOC) and death are from cutting off the ability to breath and, if so, surely they could extricate themselves when the need to breathe becomes acute. Unfortunately LOC and death come from obstruction of blood flow through the carotid arteries and LOC can arrive suddenly and unexpectedly so that victims are rendered unconscious and can’t save themselves.


  19. kishore

    August 17, 2015 at 7:58 am

    could u please point out the different between a broken neck and death due to asphyxia in hanging there a way to identify the neck is broken or not by looking at the physical condition of the victim.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      August 17, 2015 at 8:01 am

      The only reliable way to determine if a neck fracture occurred is by X-raying the corpse. Or doing a dissection of the neck.


      • kishore

        August 17, 2015 at 8:08 am

        some people’s ropes tangled in side ways for some on center is this has got something to do with neck break


  20. Jason

    September 6, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    Is it common for hanged victims to defecate themselves during or after the process? Specifically ones who die from asphyxiation, not a broken neck.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      September 7, 2015 at 7:33 am

      It can happen but it’s not all that common.



        November 11, 2015 at 1:08 am

        How about urinating themselves while hanging? Does it happen sometimes?


      • D.P. Lyle, MD

        November 11, 2015 at 9:02 am

        Yes sometimes that does happen.


  21. Leanne new

    September 12, 2015 at 9:23 am

    Can you tell me how you get over someone hanging themselves and you just been in time to get them down and give CPR to them??? I will never get this image out off my mind! Ever! I will never understand what made him do this! He is ok now and just wants to forget about it but it haunts me…. Makes me brace myself to going home or not arguing with him so he doesn’t do it again? Why don’t the people that do it and are lucky to be saved see what they have done and see the mark on the person that had to save them???


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      September 12, 2015 at 9:26 am

      Time is the only healer here—and maybe some counseling for you both.



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