Choking game flirts with disaster
April 28, 2009
By Chantelle Lusebrink
Adolescents are playing a deadly game by choking themselves to get high.Cutting off blood flow and circulation of oxygen to the brain, and then releasing pressure to let circulation rush back, causes the high feeling, said John Milne, an emergency physician at Swedish Medical Center in Issaquah. It also causes brain cells to die.
The game is sometimes practiced with other children at first, and some children choose to continue the practice on their own, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Together, one child will choke another until they lose consciousness or faint. Alone, children use a restraint around their neck and tie it to a door or piece of furniture. Pressure of a child’s weight against the restraint can cause him or her to lose consciousness. If he or she falls forward onto the restraint, death can be the result.
In the game, children are self-inducing a stroke, Milne said.
“The long-term consequences can be a variety, depending on what area was affected most and the duration of time it was deprived,” Milne said. “But they could end up with permanent motor dysfunction, personality changes, loss of memory and a whole spectrum of other types of responses.”
Milne said there haven’t been any reports of children having played the choking game before coming to the Swedish emergency room in Issaquah. However, that information isn’t something children will typically share, he said.
Children swap info online
Children find out about the practice through friends at school, at after-school activities, parties and online at YouTube, said Ken Tork, who lost his 15-year-old son Kevin to the choking game March 30.
“Of the parents I’ve talked to, most of them have never been to YouTube, because they think it is a site for kids,” he said. “It’s not. That information is on there and they are looking at it. If I would have taken time to educate myself, I might still have my son.”
Choking game deaths usually fall in the undetermined category, because there isn’t enough evidence to determine whether they are a suicide or accident.
The choking game “is a perfect example of where intent may not be clear,” said Dr. Richard Harruff, King County’s chief medical examiner.
He said he has seen child deaths that have likely been caused by the choking game in the 16 years he’s worked in the office.
“It’s been pretty clear cut that it was likely,” he said, “or the family has said, ‘Oh, he’s done this before.’”
Statistics hard to pin down
But because the deaths are often undetermined, statistics vary drastically.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates at least 82 children, ages 6-19, have died as a result of the choking game between 1995 and 2007.
However, the CDC statistics are limited to cases where the deaths of children from the game produced some sort of news media report.
The Dangerous Adolescent Behavior Education Foundation statistics estimate there have been 442 U.S. deaths in 2009. In 2008, there were only 12 deaths recorded by the foundation.
The rise might be attributed to the self-reporting nature of the issue, and the fact that more people report such deaths as they become educated about the game.
Foundation officials calculate the deaths by tracking media reports and relying on families to report the deaths of children caused by the game, said Kate Leonardi, founder and director of the foundation.
She founded the organization after her son Dylan Blake, 11, died from playing the choking game in October 2005.
“It has gotten tagged ‘the good kids game,’” Leonardi said. “But it can happen to any child. White, black, green, purple, 9 years to 21 years, in suburbia, out in the middle of nowhere, in the city — it is everywhere.”
However, people should be wary of the statistics, said Sue Eastgard, executive director of Youth Suicide Prevention.
There are about 100 youth suicides in the state each year, she said.
“Part of the issue, I think, is that it’s easier somehow for some people to believe that this was an accident, that their child was playing a stupid game,” she said. “It is much harder to talk about suicide, because there is a stigma around it.”
But while some children might commit suicide, Ken Tork said he knows that is not an issue with his son.
“Kids are aware of it,” he said of the choking game. “Parents need to educate themselves and talk to their children.
“You don’t get over the pain. You live with it,” he added. “I lost my son, but if other parents educate themselves, they don’t have to go through what I am.”
The choking game
What to know
87 percent of victims are male.
Most that died were between 11 and 16.
Nearly all who died were playing alone.
Deaths have occurred throughout the U.S.
Discussion of the game or its aliases
Marks on the neck
Wearing high-necked shirts
Disorientation after spending time alone
Increased and uncharacteristic irritability or hostility
Ropes, scarves, belts tied to bedroom furniture, doorknobs or found knotted on the floor
Unexplained presence of dog leashes, choke collars or bungee cords near a child’s room
Pinpoint-sized bleeding spots under the skin of the face, especially on the eyelids or the lining of the eyelids and eyes
Loss of consciousness
Death of brain cells due to oxygen deprivation can cause memory loss and lack of coordination
Broken bones, like the jaw, from falls
Hemorrhages of the eye
Attention and behavior disorders
Source: Centers for Disease Control
Where to get help
Centers for Disease Control: www.cdc.gov/Features/ChokingGame
For Kevin’s Sake: en.wordpress.com/tag/ken-tork/
The Dangerous Adolescent Behavior Education Foundation: chokinggame.net
Youth Suicide Prevention Program: www.yspp.org or call the crisis line 206-461-3222
Reach Reporter Chantelle Lusebrink at 392-6434, ext. 241, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this article at www.issaquahpress.com.