School officials: Choking anything but a game

Yokota principal warns students of dangers of self-induced suffocation

By TERI WEAVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 1, 2008

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Yokota Middle School officials last week began an effort to stop teens from experimenting with “the choking game” after discovering some students were participating in self-induced suffocation.

The suffocation limits oxygen to the brain, which can create a euphoric sensation, school and medical officials said Wednesday.

It can also cause brain damage and death, they said.

“I don’t think they truly understood all of the dangers,” said Don Christensen, the school’s principal, who first learned on Monday that some students at his school were experimenting with the so-called game.

“I don’t think it was a widespread thing,” he added of the popularity of the practice at the school on the U.S. air base near Tokyo. “But I think it was growing.”

Since 1995, at least 82 children and teens have died after self-induced suffocation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In most cases, deaths occurred among boys who engaged in the practice alone, according to the CDC’s Web site.

No students at Yokota have been hospitalized or injured because of self-induced suffocation, said Christensen, who added he had never before heard of the practice happening at Department of Defense Dependents Schools in his 26-year career.

School officials in Okinawa and South Korea said last week they were not aware of any of their students participating in the choking game.

Christensen said a parent told the middle school on Monday that his or her child had asked about the practice. That parent, in turn, called the school.

School officials began talking with students about it and discovered “more than a handful” of kids either knew about the practice or were doing it, Christensen said. He said there was no information that indicated the students doing it on school grounds.

Most of the participants were in eighth grade, Christensen said. He said he held an assembly Monday afternoon to talk about the dangers of the practice. On Tuesday he sent an e-mail to all parents.

“Recently it has come to the attention of the school that some of our students are participating in a very dangerous activity,” the e-mail from Christensen read. “We are meeting with the students to explain the dangers. … We would like you to discuss these activities with your children and talk to them.”

Christensen said the school is not planning to launch an official investigation to discover which kids have experimented with the game, nor are any of the known participants being punished.

Instead, Christensen and other school officials have asked parents, teachers, chaplains, medical officials and the students themselves to talk openly about the practice. Christensen said he believes the students are taking the message seriously.

“We want you all to come back tomorrow,” he said.

What is the ‘choking game’?

To start with, it’s decidedly not a game, according to school and medical officials at Yokota Air Base in Japan.

The practice involves choking, either by another person or by tightening a belt or rope around the neck, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As participants limit the amount of oxygen to their brain, a sense of euphoria can occur for a few seconds, said Capt. Jonathan Day, a flight surgeon with the 374th Airlift Wing at Yokota.

“The bottom line: Kids want something for nothing,” Day said. “They think this is harmless. They are wrong. They are dead wrong.”

Day will speak to Yokota Middle School students this week as a family physician to warn them about the dangers of the game.

But he also will tell them about his friend who recently lost a child because of the practice.

“We can’t afford to have a tragedy like this,” Day said.

The CDC says the practice is most common among boys. Deaths and brain injuries occur most often when the person engages in the activity alone. The technique can cause fainting, which could cause a person to hang him- or herself or fall and suffer injuries or a concussion.

The practice also can cause accumulative damage, Day said. Individual brain cells die off when the body is deprived of oxygen, Day said.

Day said parents should talk to their children about the practice. Typically, the effects last only a few seconds, so it’s hard to tell if a child is doing it.

Symptoms can include tiredness, confusion and disorientation, but usually only right after the choking. If those symptoms last, the person see a physician, he said.

Longer-term symptoms include headaches, marks around the neck, teens wearing turtlenecks (even in warm weather), and ropes or other items tied in odd places in the home.

For more information, go to: www.cdc.gov/Features/ChokingGame/

— Teri Weaver